Detroit area's EV charging stations test planning and patience
Bloomfield Hills — The electric-car future is here — if you have time to spare, a second gas-powered car and good math skills.
The Jaguar I-Pace is the first direct challenger to the Tesla Model S and X, and the first in a wave of luxury EVs. Yet, for all their high-priced, technical prowess, vehicles like the Jag are entering a charging-station infrastructure in Michigan that is ill-equipped to keep them running.
I spent an anxious weekend in the I-Pace testing the limits of Metro Detroit’s charging stations — and the patience of my family. Jaguar and other EV-makers strongly advise wiring your house for a 240-volt fast-charger. Without it, plan on scheduling your life around your car.
With a Tesla Model 3 on order, my house is already wired with a 240-volt Tesla charger. But Tesla chargers are incompatible with other brands. Previous I-Pace, Chevy Bolt EV and Nissan Leaf EV tests have all involved a degree of range anxiety, but my packed Friday and Saturday would be a true test.
My I-Pace was delivered with a half-charge. Refilling a gasoline-powered vehicle to a 400-mile range is as simple as going to the nearest gas station for five minutes. EVs take more planning. The I-Pace display estimated 95 miles of range remained.
With a busy day of appointments, I had no time for my home’s standard 110-volt socket. EV-makers recommend it only as a last resort. A 110-volt charger returns a pathetic 4 miles per hour of charging at best (it took 19 hours to get back 30 miles of range on a Cadillac CT6 plug-in last summer).
So I plotted a strategy to charge on-the-go.
Metro Detroit charging options — like most states outside ultra-green California — are spotty. According to PlugShare, a smartphone app for locating charging stations, there are about 42,000 locations nationwide, one-third of them in the Golden State. They range from charging networks run by companies like EVGo, to obscure, individual outlets in parking garages.
Compare that to about 115,000 gas stations around the country — 4,500 in Michigan — with multiple pumps.
Crucially, only 15 percent of EV stations are so-called fast-chargers — and about half of those are Tesla-exclusive. Fast-chargers can, in my experience, potentially deliver four times the juice of a common 240-volt Level 2 home-charger: A fast-charger can deliver about 80 miles of range in an hour.
In all of Metro Detroit, I counted 12 fast-chargers in locations as varied as parking lots and auto dealerships.
With an afternoon appointment at a radio station in Southfield —15 miles away — the Jaguar's navigation system told me the closest charger was a 240-volt unit at a BMW dealership on Telegraph Road. I would have called the dealership to ask permission to charge a Jaguar, a potentially awkward conversation. But it moved to Pontiac months ago.
No matter. After taking care of radio business, I set course for Nissan’s Technical Center in Farmington Hills — 15 miles west — assuming they would have a bank of chargers for employees who drive Leaf EVs.
This is how many experienced EV owners charge — on fixed daily routes. Plug in at work. Plug in at home. I figured I could have the I-Pace charge while I conducted a Nissan interview.
Trouble is, all 14 Nissan chargers — including two fast-chargers — were occupied. My Jaguar sat. Range left: 65 miles.
Rapid-fire afternoon appointments followed. Back to the radio station: 15 miles. Back home: 15 miles. Range left: 35 miles. And I had a 7 p.m. movie date with my wife.
Lacking trust in the nav system for station status, I relied on the PlugShare phone app. Sadly, the Maple Theater (and surrounding shopping center) offer no charging ports. The closest 240-volt charger: West Bloomfield Library, seven miles away.
My wife and I hatched a plan. She would follow me to West Bloomfield at 6 p.m. in her gas-powered Subaru Impreza, and I would plug in the Jaguar for four hours (good for 20 miles per charging-hour — or 80 total) while we were at the theater and had dinner.
But the West Bloomfield charger didn’t work. I called station-operator ChargePoint, which tried a system reboot. No luck. Range left: 27 miles.
We left the Jaguar and arrived in the Subaru just in time for the 7 p.m. show. Afterward, we fetched the Jaguar, returning home with just 20 miles of charge.
Saturday dawned and I canceled my usual sports-club workout to preserve charge for my noon-2 p.m. radio show. Still, I wouldn't have enough charge to get back from the station. I stopped at the Nissan Tech Center on the way and bellied up to the fast-charger only to realize it was a ChadMo station, a technology that supports the Nissan Leaf, not a Jaguar.
Plan B was right across the parking lot, where I plugged into a less-powerful 240-volt charger for nearly three hours while getting work done on my laptop. With 53 miles of range, I made it to the radio station, then back home with just 20 miles of range left. Back at Square One despite a morning of charging.
Next appointment: Meet friends for dinner and a play in Detroit.
We plotted the evening around the car. The only fast-charger in south Oakland County is at Woodward and Nine Mile in Ferndale, in a Dunkin’ Donuts lot. It was on the Fisher Theatre glide-path and three blocks from Pop’s for Italian, a family favorite.
But when we got in the car at 5 p.m. to head for dinner and the theater, the range had bled to 16 miles from 20. We had suffered the dreaded “vampire” energy loss when a cars sits. And Dunkin’ Donuts was 13 miles away.
My long-suffering wife followed the Jaguar to make sure I made it. To maximize range, I turned off the air-conditioning, selected Eco mode and crawled down Woodward using as little throttle as possible. A $90,000 Jaguar EV had been reduced to a mere appliance accompanied by a gas-powered tugboat. I made it to the Dunkin' Donuts and plugged in.
When we emerged from dinner, I found the charger had cut off after a half-hour. But I had 60 miles of range — enough to get to the Fisher and back home.
When my Model 3 arrives later this October, the 240-volt charger in my garage will ease most of my range anxieties. Until I plan a long trip up north to EV-infrastructure challenged Lake Michigan.
My wife might kill me first.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.