DC Down Under Dispatch #3: Pushing EV Range to the Limit—and Beyond

When you set off with less range than you need to get to the next charger, you deploy every trick in the book.

byJames Gilboy, Lewin Day| PUBLISHED Aug 19, 2022 12:15 PM
DC Down Under Dispatch #3: Pushing EV Range to the Limit—and Beyond
Lewin Day
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The sun hadn’t yet risen over the Nullarbor Roadhouse and we already had a problem.

Since leaving Adelaide, the Kia EV6’s range estimate dipped with every full charge as it accounted for our energy-intensive highway driving. That cold morning, with temperatures barely above freezing, it read 227 miles. We had 234 between us and the next charger in Madura and the longest day of driving on the entire trip ahead of us.

2022 Kia EV6 AWD at dawn on the Nullarbor Plain. James Gilboy

We knew that falling short here could have a domino effect that would delay our arrival a day or more, and maybe even cause us to miss our flights home. There was only one thing to do: pull out every trick we could think of to hyper-mile it, maximize the range, and hope that would make enough of a difference.

[Welcome to project DC Down Under, where The Drive is sending the indomitable Lewin Day and James Gilboy across 1,700 miles of the Australian Outback over the span of five days in a Kia EV6. Electric cars in 2022 thrive in places where there's a healthy number of public chargers; doing so across the Nullarbor Plain is another matter altogether. Follow along with Lewin and James' journey on our Twitter and Instagram accounts with the hashtag #DCDownUnder and watch this space for updates. This is the fifth story in the series. You can read parts onetwothree, and four here.]

The route. Google

We set off from the Nullarbor Roadhouse before dawn, driving well below the 110-kph (68-mph) speed limit at 80 kph (50 mph). The heater stayed mostly off to conserve energy, coming on only when the windshield fogged up as temperatures dropped further before dawn. Though the going was slow, we were still anxious about hitting a kangaroo in the dark—almost as nervous as we were about reaching Madura.

Our slow pace, however, was eventually rewarded with the best news possible: our range deficit was shrinking. We watched the gap slowly decrease, a klick at a time, before it finally caught up to the break-even point.

It was a good sign but not a reason to celebrate, as we weren’t out of the woods yet. We wanted to leave some room for error and build as big a range buffer as we could, so we minimized all energy consumption. The radio stayed off, and Lewin killed a “winter mode” function in the infotainment that heated the battery for performance at the expense of range.

As the sun rose, so did the temperature—and therefore pressure—of our tires, boosting our efficiency. The range buffer crept up more quickly, freeing us to speed up to 85, then 90, then sustain 95. It was still well short of the speed limit, but still a damn sight quicker than we’d driven so far. Eventually, we got confident enough to take a small detour to the cliffs for photos, less than a mile from the highway. Nothing consequential, but on checking our range afterward, our problem had returned. Somehow, we’d fallen behind the curve again.

We immediately slowed down to 80 kph again to rebuild our safety net, but the gap between how much range we had and how much we needed wasn’t closing like before. The only option was to slow down more than before, down to 70, or about 43 mph in what amounts to a 65 zone. Lewin was worried there was something wrong with the car, that the battery might be bad, or maybe the brakes were dragging. I was more concerned with flagging faster traffic past, especially with the road train that filled our rear-view mirror and leaned on the horn.

But even 70 wasn’t doing the trick. We dropped further, to 65 kph, then 60, about 37 mph. It turned what should’ve been about a 3.5-hour drive into a nearly six-hour slog through a dissonant, monotonous landscape. Though we were sometimes within sight of the coastal cliffs, the fields of saltbush over pale limestone seemed to stretch forever, unchanging over hundreds of miles. (Still no kangaroos, though.) We started to wonder if we’d even make our motel that night, and have to make emergency arrangements instead. That wouldn’t be easy if we ran out of juice where there’s no cell reception, or stopped somewhere with a closed front desk or no vacancies—both problems we’d had to think around so far.

Lewin halfheartedly wished for evidence of a problem with the car, just to vindicate us for doing everything right. Seemingly out of sheer spite, the Kia began to claw back some range, eliminating our range deficit, before building a small—but crucial—surplus of five km. But even at barely more than half the speed limit, that too slipped at Madura neared. We watched the range buffer dip to four, then three, all the way down to two km with under 10 km to go.

Battery readings get inaccurate at low charges, so at 1 percent charge, we joked about having to get out and push if we have to. As the last turn before Madura came into view, with two kilometers to go and four kilometers of range indicated, we wished we’d kept our peace.

It was a hill. A big one.

I killed cruise control and manually nursed the Kia toward the slope as the last of our range swirled the drain. All we need to reach Madura is to get to the top, then gravity would be on our side. One kilometer to go, three left in the battery. I backed off the accelerator as the slope increased, bleeding off momentum but saving charge. Two kilometers of range left. The road flattened out, and Lewin called out the turnoff. I let off the accelerator completely as the Madura Roadhouse at the bottom came into view. 

We’d made it.

After hooking up to the 22-kW DC charger—the fastest we’d seen so far—and downing a damp sausage roll, we ambled around looking for something, anything, please god, to do. Absent was the serendipity of Poochera; Madura was but a roadhouse surrounded by brush. We considered climbing a nearby hill but realized the instant before stepping into the scrub that this is how stories of snakebit tourists begin. We were affirmed after turning back by the groundskeeper telling us he’d just last week seen one of those ultra-venomous Eastern Browns where we’d been walking.

It was too windy to fly our camera drone, so we ended up guzzling sugary snacks while we waited for the EV6 to charge. Our math (and that of EV Cannonballers) showed we’d save time if we charged longer and drove faster, so that’s what we planned to do. It’d also leave us with extra range if the morning’s problems reared their head again.

2022 Kia EV6 AWD charging at the Madura Roadhouse. James Gilboy

But they didn’t. For much of the less-eventful drive to Caiguna, we managed at 100 kph (62 mph), which we were grateful to do after a painful stint at suburban speeds. A look at the weather forecast showed that the morning’s headwinds of almost 20 mph had died down; they were probably to blame for our difficult first leg. We reached Caiguna and its fry oil-burning, 50-kW DC charger in high spirits—only for our hearts to sink as we saw a Tesla Model 3 already hooked up.

Our worries were for naught, though, as the owners told us they only needed 10 more minutes to charge, and that they were headed in the opposite direction. So, no competition for outlets down the road. 

It also turned out that they had heard about our journey, with word having circulated in Australian EV circles. After bidding farewell, we hooked up to charge, bought half a dozen candies neither of us had ever seen before, and set off on the 90-Mile Straight with the sun setting.

With no turns to make for well over an hour, and no headwinds to push through, this became the relaxing end to the day we needed. The sun dyed scattered thunderheads in shades of sherbet as it sank; the trees gradually returned to flank the road. We had no concerns about range, having tweaked our plans to briefly stop in Balladonia for dinner and a charge—expensive though it may be, at $1 AUD per kWh.

It turned out to be a stop we’d have regretted missing, with the best meal we’d had in over 1,000 miles (I’ve never had such good deep-fried scallops) and a superb local history museum. Not only did we learn something about Australia’s transcontinental rallies; we touched a piece of Skylab that fell in Balladonia in 1979. It almost made up for how dull Madura had been.

The roadhouse’s early closure, though, meant we had to hit the road again, as our lodging still lay ahead. Still no kangaroos crossed our path, though that may have been for the better given how a round of Lil Nas X karaoke dominated our attention.

Sunset over the Nullarbor Plain. James Gilboy

Norseman rose from the horizon as the biggest settlement we’d seen in days, despite its population of only about 600. After missing a turn and stomping around a trailer park looking for our rooms, we finally found the spot, dropped off our bags, and headed for the charger a third of a mile away. 

It was barely possible to see in the dark around the football oval, but we found it, hooked up, and trekked the distance back to our rooms as it neared midnight. I probably woke up half of Norseman barking back at the dogs along the way. It had been a brutal day, but one we were certain prepared us for any more range troubles to come. The hardest part of our journey was past us, we thought.

Oh, how naïve we were.

Got a tip or question for the author? You can reach them here: james@thedrive.com