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A cross-country road trip in an electric vehicle: Doable?

S. Muralidhar | Updated on: Dec 10, 2021

After 1,600 km from Mumbai to Chennai in a MG ZS EV, the answer is yes. Some niggles, but it is possible and will be easier still in the future.

There is so much in the news about electric vehicles (EVs) — both in the two-wheeler space and passenger cars — that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to tell my friends and colleagues that the EV-era is still some time away. Many say that they’d put up their down payment right away if not for the woeful lack of a widespread charging network.

Last month, it got me thinking about how I must experience first-hand the current status of EV charging infrastructure in the country. Is the public charging network really that poor and will it be suicidal to attempt a journey which is over 1,500 km long and will need multiple charging stops along the way? The only way to find out was a Mumbai to Chennai road trip.

My choice of EV was the MG ZS. The plan was for a long road trip to prove a point that an extended, relatively leisurely drive over three days is doable, not a harried 24-hour run that nobody in the real-world will attempt.

Route plan

I left Mumbai early in the morning to avoid rush-hour traffic. My MG ZS EV’s info display showed that the batteries were charged up to 88 per cent. The electric SUV’s 44.5 kWh battery is rated to offer a driving range per charge of 419 km but I knew real world driving range would be closer to 300-320 km per charge and that too only with a ‘judicious’ right foot.

Unlike an ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle which can be filled up at any of the gazillion fuel stations along the way, a trip in a BEV (battery electric vehicle) will obviously need a fair bit of route planning to ensure regular stops for charging. So, I had to avoid routes that didn’t have any charging stations within a 200-300 km distance. My plan was to drive from Mumbai to Pune, then head to Goa via Kolhapur and Belgaum. I had to break up the trip up to Chennai and be prepared for multiple charging stops because I knew that expecting the unexpected was necessary.

Given the inconsistent power supply situation in many parts of the country and the growing population of EVs compared to the relatively slower growth in charging infrastructure, I was expecting delays due to inoperative stations or queues of EVs waiting for a charge.

So, my prep for the drive included a route map that identified individual charging stations and their contact details, addresses of MG dealerships and workshops along the route, and even other brand dealerships which might be expected to have wall sockets for AC charging or DC fast chargers installed in their premises. I had to call ahead to confirm if the charging stations are operational.

EV ecosystem

One of the first things I had to do before the start of the road trip was plan the charging stops. There are nearly a dozen charging station service providers in the country now and many more are in the works. Quite a few are, as yet, regional players or focused on specific vehicle types. My test mule MG ZS EV came with a 16-amp wall-socket charging cable and sported the CCS2 (combined charging system 2) European standard plug and socket. There are generic online resources, including Google Maps, now available for locating charging stations on specific routes. But to keep it simple, I downloaded the apps of three charging station brands with the most widespread network along my planned route — Tata Power’s EZ Charge, Fortum and Zeon Charging. Together, these charging station service providers offer a mix of 25kW and 50kW DC fast chargers in multiple cities in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa and Tamil Nadu.

Connecting automatically using GPS location and station selection, making payments online, and getting charge delivered from the selected charger was a seamless experience overall while using any of the three brands.

But it was not without a fair share of hiccups, though most could be sorted and I was on my way after a short delay. In some cases, I had to wait for the charging station to be switched on — a result of low usage. In others, I had to wait for a previous user to finish up. There was one occasion when a power cut midway tripped the charging cycle and the station wouldn’t come back online despite many attempts at resetting the unit. Turned out that the three-phase power supply hadn’t stabilised. There was one charge attempt when the central server crashed and both the app on my phone and the charging station froze and couldn’t be restarted.

But, the heartening bit during these situations was how proactive and helpful the tech support and call centre executives were at all three of these charging station outfits. A special mention should also be made about the extremely helpful executives at Tata Motors’ dealerships where most Tata Power EZ Charge stations were installed. A couple of hotels enroute also allowed me to charge the MG ZS EV via a wall socket and, on one occasion, I got a full charge overnight.

The charging cycle varies based on the station or socket being used with a hierarchical increase in charging times depending on whether it is a 50kW or 25kW DC rapid charger or regular wall socket. Charging times could vary from 18 hours to as low as one hour. There are hyper chargers that are either 100kW or 150kW that will be set up in the future and these could dramatically reduce the charging time for a full top-up to just about how much it might take for a coffee stop.

The rates I paid during my eight charging stops varied from ₹15 to ₹20 per kW of charge delivered.

Electric performance

After looping to Goa and back via Belgaum, I pointed the nose towards Chennai via Tumkur, Bengaluru and Krishnagiri. The MG ZS EV’s generic on-road performance is more than adequate for most drivers and their expectations.

The 44.5 kWh battery pack is located under the floor of the vehicle — said to be the safest place for the battery to be located. It is still a high-set modern SUV with a ground clearance of 177 mm but the lower centre of gravity ensures a stable ride even while taking turns at speed in the ZS EV. The electric motor delivers 142.76 PS of power and 353 Nm of torque; enough to propel the vehicle to 100 kmph from standstill in 8.5 seconds.

There were enough creature comforts in the car, including electrically adjustable leather seats, a panoramic sunroof, auto headlamps, rain-sensing wipers and heated door mirrors. Auto air-conditioning is also effective, though for most of the 1,600+ km journey I drove without it to save on battery charge. On average, I observed that using the air-conditioner leads to an 18 per cent drop in range.

What I didn’t quite enjoy was the over-pliant suspension in the ZS EV which didn’t help some of the badly-broken patches of road leading up to Chorla Ghat on the way in and out of Goa. As for the driving range, the best I managed to get was about 317 km on a full charge. During the drive, I observed that driving at 3-digit speeds constantly or using the cruise control function lead to a quicker drop in driving range.

There are three driving modes — Eco, Sport and Normal — and an equal number of KERS levels (kinetic energy recuperation system). The best range can be had by allowing pre-emptive regen-braking to slow down the vehicle, and by maintaining a steady throttle at highway speeds. Per charge driving range is also affected by road conditions and traffic conditions. So ghat sections and frequent braking and accelerating will lead to a higher drop in range compared to steady highway speeds.

Resounding ‘Yes’

Range anxiety is real and unavoidable. It is a bit more elevated if you are going to attempt a long road trip. But my journey proved that with enough planning and a calculated, unhurried pace, it should be possible to take EVs out of town with confidence.

The charging network is fast-growing in numbers and capability. And, like I did, one gets to meet other EV owners in the unlikeliest of places.

Mass market EVs are probably just a few years away and the prospect of doing week-long trips along the major motoring routes of the country is extremely promising.

Published on December 10, 2021

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