You can drive an EV from Bluff to Cape Reinga. But would you want to?
OPINION: At sunset on Wednesday, Better New Zealand Trust's Leading the Charge electric-vehicle (EV) road trip arrived at Cape Reinga, completing a toe-to-tip road trip that started at dawn on April 19 in Bluff.
I was there, although I'll confess I was a bit of an interloper. I'd only joined at Auckland, as one of a group of journalists dipping in and out of the event, and I was driving one of only two plug-in hybrid vehicles that went to the Cape: a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (the other was an Audi A3 E-tron).
Plug-in hybrids are cars that run a short distance on externally-charged electric power (50km in my case) but also have conventional petrol engines to reply upon when the battery runs out.
The others at the Cape - Tesla Model X, Tesla Model S (5), BMW i3 (2), Hyundai Ioniq, Renault Zoe and Nissan Leaf - were all pure-electric cars. Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs). The real deal.
Anyway, post dusk-photo-opportunity, I turned my Outlander around and drove back to Auckland; I was back in my own bed by 11pm. The rest of the crew retired to the Waitiki Landing campground, 20km south of the Cape, to spend the night and recharge their vehicles for the trip home.
Ironically, Waitiki is also the location of New Zealand's furthest-north petrol station. That's where I filled up my Mitsubishi with fossil fuel for the 400km trip back.
So, what have we learned? That EVs do indeed have have the range and infrastructure to venture well out of the urban environment. But also that you still have to be something of an EV-evangelist to actually own one.
It'd be easy to poke fun at a bunch of EVs taking three weeks to cover the length of NZ. But the reality is that Leading the Charge was arranged and paced to enable a nationwide series of public showings of the EV fleet.
Modern EVs have a real-world range of at least 150km (more if you're feeling brave) and with an average charge time of 20 minutes, it is actually possible to keep up a reasonable open-road pace.
Twenty minutes: really? Yes, it's the rise of DC fast-charging that has made EVs so much more practical.
A variety of power companies and private enterprises are developing this infrastructure: ChargeNet, for example, already has a network of fast-chargers running from Invercargill in Southland to Kawakawa in the Far North, the framework of an "electric highway" that is being constructed in partnership with BMW.
You get charged for using the parking space (25 cents per minute) as well as the electricity, but the average cost of a ChargeNet station-session is still just $10.
And it's the information age of course, so it's not hard to find the nearest charge point. There's a smartphone-app called Plugshare which even includes private homes willing to let you plug in, and the ChargeNet website can tell you whether an individual station is in use or free, in real-time.
Between the existing fast-charge stations and plugging into domestic sockets for trickle-charging at night, the current infrastructure was enough to get the Leading the Charge fleet from toe to tip with only three instances of special-charging arrangements. More about those in a moment.
But we're still not ready for an EV revolution. At least I'm not.
It's true that you can drive an EV long distances if you really want to, but you have to give up a lot. Most importantly, that thing that makes the private vehicle so wonderful in the first place: complete and utter freedom.
Yes, you can get from A-to-B in an EV, even if B is a really long way from A; but each part of the journey has to be painstakingly planned around that charging infrastructure and when you venture into more remote places, you have to get creative.
Case in point: to get all the way to the Cape, our EV fleet had to start out fully charged in the morning at Paihia, make a pitstop at the Norfolk campground in Awanui to charge up using caravan outlets, stop for another quick boost at Waitaki, then onwards to the top of the country. The smaller (by which I mean non-Tesla) EVs arrived back at the campground with minimum charge to spare. Hence the overnight stay.
That's why EVs are still not for everybody. To drive one on the open road you have to change your mindset, think constantly about how/where to charge and, it seems to me, regard your car as a green transportation tool rather than a pleasure.
Unless you're fortunate enough to have a $100k-plus Tesla with 400-600km range, pure-EV ownership remains a lifestyle choice and a slower pace of life and there's no point pretending otherwise. The cars might be fast, but as an owner you need to have time to spare.
If you really want to join the EV evolution (I don't really think anybody could really call it a "revolution" just yet), I suspect you already know that you're the right kind of person. You want to feel like a pioneer, you regard a long journey as an adventure and you probably love standing around talking about your EV with other EV people - because you have to do quite a bit of that at charging stations. It's likely that you get really amped up when you're talking plug-in facts and figures.
Nothing wrong with that. It makes you an enthusiast and any kind of enthusiasm around cars is welcome.
For the rest of us who like driving EVs and think they're worthy but can't stand the compromise, I have the answer.
Plug-in hybrids like the Outlander are regarded as cheating by some EV-devotees, but the reality is that with an average daily commute of 20km for Kiwi drivers, a vehicle like the Outlander PHEV will probably be driven on pure-electric power 80 per cent of the time, yet it still offers hundreds of kilometres of non-stop petrol-electric hybrid range for those times when you want to really hit the road.
True, there's still a price premium to be paid for plug-in models, despite their reliance on fossil fuel. At a starting price of $60,990 the Outlander PHEV is still $13,500 more expensive than the equivalent-specification plain-old-petrol 4WD model.
Feel-good EV-driving issues aside, I'll leave it to you to do the sums on whether the lower running cost stacks up for your driving life. If you're going to get involved in EV ownership, you'll have to get used to doing sums.