Why taking a road trip in a Tesla revealed the limitations of electric vehicles
I knew electric vehicles had questionable range, but in our quest for a green utopia I had no idea of the seat-of-the-pants hell of driving one in far-flung NSW, writes an EV-fatigued Warren Brown.
By Warren Brown
September 5, 2022
The Sunday Telegraph
If you ask anyone who knows me there’s nothing, I like more than a jolly good road trip.
If you hang around long enough, I’m guaranteed to bore anyone within earshot with tales of my road-going adventures that are so bonkers I have trouble believing them myself.
It’s all about the joy of long-distance motoring – the freedom it gives, the chance for adventure.
So, when the opportunity to jump aboard an electric car and head west for the Riverina turned up last week I just couldn’t say no – after all, Energy Minister Chris Bowen has made it painfully clear the future for personal transport in Australia is electric.
Photographer Jonathan Ng and I were to head to Griffith last week for the annual Daily Telegraph Bush Summit. Instead of catching a flight from Sydney we decided to drive.
Jonathan, a car guy like myself, offered to pick me up from Goulburn in his 2019 Tesla and drive us the 390km west. While I’ve driven electric cars before, I’d never been in one for any considerable distance, and while I’d experienced an EV’s blistering performance, like most people I was also aware of their shortcomings when it came to their range.
The Tesla struck me as the ideal car for a long drive, with its leather seats and plenty of leg room. The vehicle brimmed with futuristic features: instead of dashboard instruments there was what was fundamentally a giant iPad in front of the driver and passenger, which incorporates an endless variety of nifty features – satellite monitoring, Netflix, and most importantly a map indicating where recharging stations are situated.
“We’ll pull up at Gundagai, plug the car in and grab some breakfast,” Jonathan told me as we re-joined the highway, the thought of which sounded like a capital idea. The 188km drive from Goulburn to Gundagai was effortless, and before long we’d arrived at the feet of the Dog on the Tuckerbox, to pull up at a bank of charging stations at which there is another Tesla and a Volvo-based Polestar already receiving an intravenous dose of 240 volts. “We’ll be here for half an hour or so” Jonathan told me as he plugged in our Tesla. And in the spirit of throwing healthy eating to the wind we partook in the first of what would be many roadside gourmand experiences for the day – two bacon and egg rolls and coffee.
In half an hour we returned to the car, where the other EV drivers were now unplugging their life support.
Despite being part of the rarefied 2 per cent of the population who are electric vehicle owners, it struck me how no one was making any well-met, collegiate chitchat about their cars. You know – “G’day mate! How many megahertz are you getting to the gallon?” kind of thing.
Instead, clearly wary of these electrical interlopers, Jonathan told me to keep an eye on where those guys were heading because it was imperative we got to a town before them – if there’s only one charger in a town and they get there first then it’s a half an hour waiting while they charge, then a half an hour for us.
I’m beginning to get it – for EV drivers out here on the open road it’s now a lithium-battery Hunger Games – a charge to get charged before the other guy takes charge.
Stuffed with bacon and egg rolls, we headed off for Wagga Wagga, some 88km away, where our mission was to quickly find the resident charging station placed in a car park, and another 45-minute stay to recharge again.
A vanilla slice and three-quarters of an hour later and we were back on the road, heading for the only charging station in Narrandera – a lonely monument to a green Australia plonked in a side street where we hooked up for yet another electricity fix. A pie from the bakery this time and we ever-expanding local-pastry-filled Electric Road Warriors were on the last leg to Griffith, with one eye on the road and the other on the diminishing battery-level symbol on the screen, arriving in town to hook the car up for an electro-adrenaline hit yet again.
As someone who’d had no experience with EVs in the bush I was now taken hold by a new and genuine phenomenon that’s recently arisen with the advent of electric cars. It’s a paranoia known euphemistically as “range anxiety” – a rather patronising term suggesting that the fear of being stranded in the never-never without a spark of electricity and facing certain death is merely some sort of minor psychosis, like being afraid of the dark.
I knew electric vehicles had questionable range, but I had no idea of the seat-of-the-pants logistics of driving one in the Outback.
It was becoming glaringly obvious to me the federal government’s rabid fervour to fast-track electric vehicles by cracking down and dispensing with the internal combustion engine seems more than alarming in that we’re not being given the full picture of what the consequences will be.
I discovered there are two issues with electric vehicles that proponents tend to gloss over: the cars’ batteries don’t like cold weather, and nor do they like continuous high-speed driving – two rather important and regularly encountered features when driving in the Outback.
Not only do lithium batteries have reduced efficiency when it’s cold, but if you put the car’s heater on (so you don’t freeze) you’ll reduce its charge even quicker – therefore reducing the range.
MYEV.com suggests in order to keep the battery happy you should “park your car in a heated garage” – something else to load onto an already beleaguered electricity grid.
Unlike internal combustion engines, electric vehicles are happier in the “stop-start” situations you’d find in the city than the massive long-distance hauls you’d typically encounter in the Australian Outback.
If you do run out of charge, the car will give plenty of warning, resorting to “limp mode” for some time. But when it has eventually rolled to a complete stop, pray you have charge and range for your mobile phone, as it’s a tilt tray to the nearest town.
Scandinavian countries such as Norway are perennially wheeled out as the poster children for EVs. Yet the widest part of Norway is roughly the distance from Sydney to Dubbo, whereas the widest part of Australia is equivalent to the distance from London to Moscow.
In a green utopia where we’re all compelled to drive electric cars, who on Earth would be game enough to visit remote Outback towns in far-flung NSW?
This would conceivably curtail enthusiasm for regional tourism.
Three weeks ago, I was at a roadside servo between Wilcannia and Cobar, the cafe alive with grey nomads and tourists exploring NSW post-Covid. But not an electric vehicle nor charging station in sight.
In our diesel Toyota Prado, we needed to make a 250km detour due to flooding. How you could do that in an electric car out there I simply can’t imagine.
As for us, our return journey was the long, anxious process of charger- hopping in reverse sequence – sitting in the dark at Gundagai at 12.30am while the car took on more volts tended to take the shine off our grand motoring adventure – and not a vanilla slice in sight.