Tony Williams had a wedding to go to last summer. Airfare was too expensive for the trip from Southern California to Washington state, so he decided to drive. “I bet I could do it in an electric car,” he told himself. “It would just take me longer.” So began a one-man test of the electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure along what has been dubbed the West Coast Electric Highway.
The 1,400-mile border-to-border route from Mexico to Canada on Interstate 5 is well traveled, except that nobody has driven it in an all-electric vehicle with an estimated range of 70-90 miles. Do the math. It’s a long trip for a short-range vehicle. Still, just because it hadn’t been done didn’t mean that it couldn’t be done.
Williams’ adventure may seem a bit whimsical, but figuring out how we can travel long distances without burning up a lot of carbon is serious business. In August, the Obama administration issued new rules requiring automakers to manufacture vehicles by 2025 that have an average fuel efficiency of 54.5 mpg. Electric power will be a factor in achieving that goal, with states and localities playing a prominent role in marshaling the rules, regulations and resources that will put in place charging stations for the next generation of vehicles to travel from point A to point B without getting stranded.
Williams’ trailblazing drive proved it could be done. “I’m no Lindy,” says Williams, an unemployed pilot and electric vehicle enthusiast, referring to aviator Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight. “But in terms of an adventure, it was pretty high because there were a lot of unknowns.” He didn’t know, for example, whether charging stations would be available. Then he found out that Oregon and Washington planned to place charging stations on their portion of I-5. In fact, 15 new fast-charging stations were lit up along the north-south corridor across the two states just 16 days before Williams headed north. The nascent charging infrastructure is a curious mix of established players, including a public-private partnership involving two state DOTs, a host of startups and even Williams’ own nonprofit charging service in San Diego.
Williams and his young daughter lost time struggling to find charging stations in the Golden State, but managed to cross Oregon in 12 hours and Washington in about 13. Williams was unable to line up sponsors for his maiden trip, saying manufacturers, energy companies, government agencies and universities all kept their distance at first. He believes they hesitated, thinking, “Here’s another kook with an idea.” But once it was clear Williams was determined to make the drive, it became a big deal.
Just a couple of weeks after Williams’ inaugural run up the Pacific Coast, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon made a similar drive across his state. He says long range drives in short-range vehicles help demonstrate that EVs are “not fragile toys; they drive like any other car and they can be charged in the time that it takes to get a coffee.” Merkley believes they could play an important role in breaking the country’s dependence on oil and carbon-based fuels. He and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee have introduced legislation to provide short-term incentives for selected communities to become test beds for modeling the use of electric vehicles nationwide.
Williams says he’s seen government officials get enthusiastic about the “nifty neat-o reasons for electric cars in the immediate future,” but laments that their participation so far is a bit like when the batteries run low, “the plodding speed of government in doing something constructive will either take a long time or end up being nonexistent.”