This is the story of a 420 mile road trip between our home in Ilkley, West Yorkshire and our family holiday in St Ives, Cornwall. It’s unexceptional, except that I did it in an electric car – our BMW i3 battery electric vehicle (BEV) which has a working range of about 80-90 miles in the summer. The i3 is a fantastic car, and we love it, but its limited range means that it is generally viewed as a car about town, rather than a long distance workhorse. That being said, I often use it for medium distance drives such as the 170 mile round trip to Liverpool and back that I do most weeks.
However a drive of 400 miles or more is quite a different prospect. I spent quite a lot of time considering alternatives to doing the journey this way. I knew that it would be hard. Considering cost, amount of luggage, time required, and other factors, the best compromise solution turned out to be for me to drive in the i3 and for the family to go by train, plane, and taxi.
I needed to make a plan.
There are two types of electric vehicle chargers in this world. Rapid chargers, and all of the others. Rapid chargers can charge my car from zero to 80% in half an hour. The other kinds all take several hours to complete a significant charge. I need to plot a course from here to Cornwall that includes a sequence of rapid chargers that are no more than about 70 miles apart. That’s where Ecotricity come in.
Since 2011, Ecotricity have been developing and deploying their Electric Highway, a network of electric vehicle chargers in motorway service stations (and IKEA stores) up and down the country. Their chargers support AC charging, as well as the two mainstream DC rapid charging standards. The DC CCS rapid charging outlet required by my BMW i3 is present at most but not all of the Ecotricity sites.
Using Ecotricity's map in conjunction with Google Maps, I plotted out a route. You can take a look at the original on Google Maps or, for convenience, I've included an annotated version here. Click on the thumbnail to see a larger version.
However, Google's time estimates did not include charging time, and it turns out that trying to maintain a route plan as a Google Maps route isn't that easy.
Spreadsheets to the rescue! Here's the schedule in a spreadsheet. The estimated timings in the last column include a 30 minute charge time at each stop:
I hoped that I’d be able to improve on these times in practice, by driving faster than 56mph and restricting charging times so that the charges only covered the distance required to the next charger.
There was a wrinkle in this plan, though. For travellers to Cornwall, Ecotricity’s Electric Highway ends at Exeter Services – at least if you require DC CCS rapid charging. They are improving the network all the time, but for this journey, I planned in an overnight stay at a Best Western hotel in the rather poetically named Cornish town of Lostwithiel. Like many Best Westerns, the Restormel Lodge Hotel is equipped with a 7kW charger for the use of guests. While I was sleeping, the car would be charging up to 100%.
My plan was to leave at 3pm on the Friday, and I hoped to be able to reclaim an hour and get to the hotel by midnight.
On The Day
I start work on Friday morning. It’s 8am. A lot to get through today, but I hope that I can be finished in time to leave for Cornwall at 3pm. A couple of meetings on the phone, some PowerPoint slides to produce, a document to update. I’m sure I’ll be fine. Lunchtime comes and goes, and I plough on. Suddenly, it’s 3pm, my planned departure time. I still have things that need to be done before I can leave. I keep my head down, hoping that I will be able to limit the delay in my departure time to just half an hour.
Ten to four. I press Send and close my laptop. All finished, and it’s time to go. I hastily pack the car, hoping that I haven’t left anything important behind.
Ilkley to Lymm Truck Stop
I climb into the car, and check the numbers on the dashboard. The odometer reads 7,512 miles, and the battery is 100% charged. I check my route plan, and put into the satnav the postcode of the prosaically named Lymm Truck Stop, which is my first recharging point. It turns out that this is going to be 68 miles rather than the 73 miles previously predicted by Google Maps. I check, and it turns out that Google has me doing an inexplicable detour from the motorway roundabout near Lymm Truck Stop into the village of Lymm and back, which no doubt explains the discrepancy. My predicted arrival time is 17:28. Immediately, I start to doubt that I’ll make it to Cornwall by midnight. Of course, I won’t get there at all unless I actually get moving, so I make a record of the odometer and the time, which is 16:05, and set off.
My companion on this journey is one James Lailey, who has been recording unabridged audio versions of various of Len Deighton’s books including his Bernard Samson trilogies. Two of the three Samson trilogies are now available from Audible. These are cold war spy stories, and my absolute favourites of the genre. I’m on the second book in the first trilogy, Mexico Set, and I’m looking forward to getting through a good chunk of the story during this trip.
The route is familiar to me, as I regularly travel it to go to Liverpool and other points west. I get stuck in traffic in the usual places. At ten past five, on the motorway, I see a fellow electric car driver in his Nissan Leaf. It’s always an interesting mix of emotions to meet another electric car on the motorway. I’m pleased to see them, but then always wonder if we’ll be competing for the next charging point. Fifteen minutes later, in a traffic jam on the M60, it occurs to me that I’m not going to get to Lymm at 17:28. It turns out to be more like 6pm when I arrive.
I’m on 26% charge, and plug in outside McDonalds. I go for a wander around, partly to appease my smartwatch, which demands that I take a certain amount of exercise every day, and partly out of curiosity as this is my first visit here. It’s very crowded, and I don’t really enjoy the walk around. I end up getting in the car, and listening to a bit more of Mexico Set, while I wait for the car to charge.
There’s no queue for the charger, but using it always raises an interesting question of charging etiquette in my mind. The rapid chargers work very quickly indeed. On my car, when charging a less-than-half-full battery, the charge rate is up at around 120 amps and 400 volts. That’s 48kW, which is enough to simultaneously run sixteen of those three bar electric fires that you will remember if, like me, you are of a certain age. However, as the battery charges, this high rate of charge drops off significantly in order to maintain battery life. After about the 80% point, I’m charging not much faster than my 7kW home charger. It’s not really worth monopolising a rapid charger to do that, so etiquette suggests that you should give way at this stage if some other driver is queueing behind you. Unless you really need the extra miles to get to a destination, or perhaps a battery-only vehicle should have precedence over one which has a petrol engine as a backup. Yes, it’s complicated. Currently, possession is, as the saying goes, nine tenths of the law.
I leave Lymm at twenty to seven. The satnav tells me that I’ll be at my next stop, Hilton Park services, at around about half past seven.
Lymm Truck Stop to Hilton Park Services
Traffic is bad, but the journey to my last stopping point on the M6 motorway is uncomplicated and uneventful. I simply have to follow the motorway for about 60 miles. Focused on the travails of Bernard Samson in Mexico City, I barely notice the time passing, and it is only when I arrive at Hilton Park that I realise that I’ve lost a further 15 minutes on the predicted satnav time. It’s now almost ten to eight. Getting to Cornwall by midnight, which was always on the fanciful side, now appears impossible. “Ho hum”, I think. The battery is down to 34%, and I plug in.
I wander round the service station. I’m conscious that I’ve got quite a bit of exercise to do if I’m going to appease my watch, which is showing an amount of physical activity that clearly suggests a day spent sitting first at my desk and then in a car. On my third circuit of the uninspiring car park, I notice some vehicle recovery guys looking at the car as it charges and I go and chat to them about it. They tell me that they haven’t yet had occasion to recover any electric cars with flat batteries. I tell them that I am hoping to avoid that fate, but I privately feel that the journey will become a bit risky after the charge at Exeter services.
Thirty minutes have passed, and I stop the charge. The charging point tells me that I’m now 95% charged having taken on 14.0kWh.
It’s half past eight as I leave Hilton Park, and the next stop is a little over seventy miles away at Gloucester Services. The car predicts that I’ll arrive there at twenty to ten.
Hilton Park Services to Gloucester Services
Soon after leaving, I part company with the M6 motorway after travelling a little over seventy miles together, and move onto the M5 which I will follow into the South West until it ends.
I had expected traffic to be lighter by this time in the evening, but I still lose 20 minutes on my predicted arrival time at Gloucester Services, pulling up just before 10pm with 19% charge remaining.
I plug in, and walk across the modern and new looking car park in search of food. I’ve been looking forward to this - Gloucester Services is part of the family owned group who created Tebay Services back in 1972. They serve locally sourced seasonal food, and I can’t wait to try some. Unfortunately for me, the main restaurant closed at 9pm, but there’s a “Quick Kitchen” from which I purchase a pie and a cumberland sausage roll. By this time, I’m starving and these are both excellent.
I am very much tempted by the contents of the cake table, but manage to escape back to the car before succumbing. I totter around the car park in a parody of exercise, but it’s time to move on.
At this point, I’ve driven nearly two hundred miles in about six hours, making an average speed of around 33mph. I’ve got another 175 miles to go before I arrive at my hotel, the Restormel Lodge hotel in Lostwithiel. I call them just before ten thirty, and explain that I’ll be late. Very late. Jane, the super helpful Deputy General Manager of the hotel, tells me where their charger is, and what to do when I arrive. She kindly agrees to repeat this information in a text message, which means that I’ll be able to remember it, even in the addled state that I anticipate arriving in.
I stop the charge after 31 minutes. I’ve put in 15.1kWh and I’m on 92%. I set off towards Sedgemoor services at almost twenty five to eleven. It’s almost seventy miles away, and the satnav tells me that I’ll get there in an hour.
Gloucester Services to Sedgemoor Services
Amazingly, just this once, the satnav’s time estimate is right. I pull up at the charger in Sedgemoor services at twenty five to twelve. I’m tired now, and forget to record the battery level on arrival.
Instead, I plug in. There’s no point trying to take a picture of the car charging this time, as it’s dark. So, I start to wander around the car park. I glance at my watch. The time is twenty to twelve, but much more alarmingly I learn that I have 90 calories of exercise to complete before midnight. My neurotic relationship with my smartwatch is a private matter, so I’ll simply say here that it would be very annoying to miss this goal. I speed up from an amble to something that’s almost a trot. The heavy phone and keys in my pockets drag my shorts downwards, and I have to constantly hike them up. The people in the car park start giving me odd looks during my third circuit or so. A man in a camper van pointedly draws the curtains when our eyes accidentally meet during my fourth circuit. I feel as though it’s a relief to everyone when my watch pings and tells me that I’m done with a few minutes to spare.
I trudge back to the car, and stop the charge after exactly 30 minutes. The charger informs me that the car is 97% charged, and that I have put in 14.9kWh, which equates to approximately 17,000 calories. This is 185 times more energy than I expended in my perambulations around the car park, or probably about three Snickers bars.
I leave for Exeter services at ten past twelve. The car thinks that I’ll be there at ten to one.
Sedgemoor Services to Exeter Services
The trip is uneventful, although there’s the usual level of traffic, which seems downright unreasonable at this time of night. I arrive just before ten past one, twenty minutes slower than the estimate. Apparently, I don’t bother recording the battery level on arrival any more because I’m tired and fed up and have forgotten that I am meant to be doing it.
I plug in, and pointedly sit in the car instead of doing any more exercise. According to my plan, Lostwithiel and my hotel are 72 miles away. I’m charging up for the last leg, and I decide to wait for the range to get up to 75 miles or more before leaving. To achieve this, I charge for a record 33 minutes, finishing up at 96% and putting in a record 16.3kWh of charge.
Exeter Services to Restormel Lodge Hotel, Lostwithiel
The car predicts that I’ll arrive at the hotel at around a quarter past three in the morning. So not exactly midnight, then. I start driving.
Four miles after the services, and 162 miles after I first joined it, the M5 comes to an end; dividing its traffic between the A38 which bends south of Dartmoor towards Plymouth, and the A30 which is the road that I take around the northern edge of Dartmoor, for Lostwithiel.
The A30 is pretty hilly. After a while, I notice that the electrical range is going down faster than the number of miles that the satnav is telling me I still have to drive. This continues until it starts to get alarming. By the time I’m half way, the satnav is warning me that I’m going to run out of electricity ten miles before I arrive. I slow down to 40mph and make sure that all unnecessary gadgets within the car are switched off, particularly everything to do with the climate control, which is a notorious battery drain. I even unplug my phone from the car’s USB socket where it has been charging.
I’m now feeling somewhat alarmed. Mobile phone signal has not been the best since hitting Cornwall, and I wonder whether the “help me” button in the car will be able to obtain the required assistance if I grind to an involuntary halt due to lack of power. It’s not as though there’s a lot of traffic going by to rescue me if I get stuck.
Painfully slowly, my economy measures begin to take effect, and the deficit begins to shrink. I think that there are at least five and maybe ten miles available after the range indicator gets to zero, and I feel a bit better once I get the range up to just five miles under the remaining distance. At around 3:15am, I drive into Bodmin. The worm has turned, the range is just a little bit higher than then remaining distance, and the hotel is just a few miles away. As I drive out of the town, a large 4x4 pulls out of a side road behind me, and angrily tailgates me as I do 30mph on a bit of road with a 50mph speed limit. I mentally apologise, but don’t speed up or stop to let him pass. Both of those things would cost me battery power. Fortunately, when I turn left towards Lostwithiel, he speeds away rather than following me.
I arrive at the hotel. The range is showing as 3 miles. The display has a lot more orange in it than usual. I park up next to the charger, and sag in relief. After a little sit down in the car, I plug in to the hotel’s 7kW charger, and make my way inside. It’s 3:26am. I have no trouble falling asleep.
Restormel Lodge Hotel, Lostwithiel to St Ives
I awake to bright sunshine, scrambled eggs and sausages, and blessed coffee. The car is fully charged, and the world is a wonderful place. I check out of the hotel, and set off to drive the remaining fifty miles to St Ives at around half past ten. I arrive, and park up near our apartment at about ten minutes before midday.
I’d travelled 420 miles in about twelve hours and forty minutes, excluding the downtime in the hotel. Including the charging stops, I’d averaged 33mph. This kind of road trip is absolutely not what the current crop of sub-£50k electric cars are designed for, however I’d successfully done it. It was only made possible thanks to Ecotricity’s network of rapid chargers, and some good planning before I left.
I get my bucket and spade, and head for the beach.