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5 Tips for Driving an Electric Vehicle in California

Whether you own or rent an electric car, the Golden State is prime territory for EV driving

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California has nearly 450,000 registered electric vehicles (EVs) on its roads—approximately 42 percent of all registered EVs in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Those numbers can only soar higher as the Golden State moves toward its mandate that all new passenger cars and trucks sold in-state must be zero-emission—powered by electricity or hydrogen fuel cell—by 2035. In 2020, Lake Tahoe's first electric boat charging station was installed at the Homewood High & Dry Marina, leading the charge on zero-emission watersports experiences.

To support its abundance of EVs, California also leads the U.S. in number of public EV charging stations. According to the California Energy Commission, California has more than 73,000 stations, or about a third of all the charging stations in the country. 

Easy charging access makes California road trips a cinch. You'll find chargers in big cities like San Diego and San Francisco—more than 200 stations in each. You'll even find a charger or two in remote mountain towns like the eastern Sierra village of Bridgeport, population 600. EV chargers are found at California's hotels, restaurants, municipal buildings, public parking lots, and retailers like Walmart and Whole Foods. They're at almost every spot that sees a lot of travelers, like The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park and several lodges just outside the park: Evergreen Lodge, Rush Creek Lodge, and Tenaya Lodge.

And with the driving range of today's EVs, you don't need to charge all that often. The Tesla Model 3 can travel 353 miles between charges; the Model S can do 412 miles. With those range numbers, you could almost drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles without stopping. (But let's face it, the driver will want lunch, so you might as well charge while you eat.) Other popular EV models like the Nissan Leaf or the Chevrolet Bolt get about 250 miles on a single charge.

The obvious advantage to EV road-tripping is saving money on gasoline. Although electricity costs more in California than in many other states, EVs are still about 50 percent less expensive to drive than gas-powered vehicles, according to the California Air Resources Board. You can save even more by seeking out free or low-cost chargers on your trip.

EVs grant a lesser-known privilege for drivers in or near California's busy cities: You can zip past traffic bottlenecks by using the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane. HOV lanes are usually reserved for cars with at least two or sometimes three occupants, but EVs with just one person are permitted. That's a huge time-saver during rush hour.

If you don't own an EV but want to try driving one, consider renting for your next road trip. Enterprise rents the all-electric Nissan Leaf. Sixt rents the Tesla Model S and the BMW I3 and I8.

Check out these tips for driving an EV on California's highways:

1. Download the PlugShare or ChargeHub apps. These map-based apps search for chargers near you. Both apps provide a wealth of information such as which nearby chargers are fastest and slowest, what the fee is, and whether or not a charger is currently in use by another EV.

For example, search for EV chargers in Santa Barbara and PlugShare comes up with 68 locations, including Santa Barbara Harbor, La Cumbre Plaza shopping center, Best Western Beachside Inn, and Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort. You can filter those results to suit your needs—maybe you're only interested in Tesla-specific chargers, or chargers near restaurants or grocery stores, or chargers that are available right now. If you apply the filter to show only no-fee chargers, for example, Santa Barbara's 68 locations are narrowed to 26.

2. Plan your route before you drive. Even though California has more charging stations than any other state, it does have blank spots or "charging deserts." When traveling, use PlugShare or ChargeHub to see what's ahead, then plan accordingly. Most people wouldn't drive their gas-powered car into a remote region without a full tank of gas, and likewise, you shouldn't drive your EV into someplace like Death Valley National Park without a full charge.

For example, if you're EV road-tripping on Highway 1 along Central California's spectacular coastline, you'll find convenient charging stations in Big Sur. But as you head south, the next station is 65 miles away in San Simeon, so you have to be sure you have enough juice for that. Similarly, road-trippers on US 395 in the eastern Sierra can find several Tesla chargers along the route, but if you're driving a non-Tesla EV, you face a 200-mile charging desert between Lee Vining and Inyokern.

The fear of running out of juice is one of the main reasons people are hesitant about road-tripping in EVs. But Alex Dorey, a San Francisco-based EV driver who has racked up 55,000 miles on his Tesla Model 3, says that fear is unfounded.

"It's pretty difficult to run out of power. You'd basically have to totally ignore everything that's on your dashboard, ignore everything your car is telling you," he says. "In the worst case, you can stop at an RV park, where they'll usually let you charge at a wall outlet. It's really slow, but it does the job."

3. Weigh time versus money. Public chargers are rated as Level 1, 2, and 3. Level 1 is the slowest and cheapest (often free), and Level 3, also known as DC Fast Charging, is the quickest and most expensive.

On long trips, Dorey prefers to charge as fast as possible. Since he drives a Tesla, that means finding a Tesla Supercharger station, a Level 3 charger. "Fast charging is so much more convenient because instead of waiting five or six hours, you're waiting only 45 minutes," he says.

In contrast, Level 1 chargers are essentially standard wall outlets, which charge an EV battery at a snail's pace of 12 to 24 hours. Level 2 chargers can charge most EVs in four to eight hours.

If you're concerned about vacation time lost while your EV charges, Dorey says to find chargers near hotels, then plug in overnight while you're sleeping. For daytime charging, he seeks out Level 3 chargers near grocery stores or restaurants, or he finds ways to utilize his downtime. "I have snuck in a midday nap after a long drive," he says.

4. Charge your battery in the optimal range. Your EV's battery has a sweet spot—or range—in which it charges the fastest. To make the most of your charging time, don't wait to charge until your battery is at 10 percent or less, and don't charge it all the way up to 100 percent. At about 80 percent, charging slows down to protect the health of the battery.

"I usually take my battery down to only 25 percent, and I usually only charge it up to 75 percent," Dorey says. "It charges most efficiently in that range."

5. Drive with efficiency in mind. EV drivers quickly learn that batteries last longer when they don't put the pedal to the metal. "When people do mileage competitions to see how much they can get from their EVs, they drive around the track at 35 or 40 miles per hour," Dorey says. "That's how they maximize the number of miles they get out of a single charge."

Since electric cars are most efficient at low speeds, that's a perfect reason to slow down, choose the back roads over the major highways, and savor California's amazing scenery.

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