Floral mural painted on the silos at Ravensthorpe WA.
Floral mural painted on the silos at Ravensthorpe WA. Supplied

Who remembers the 1981 movie ‘Cannonball Run’ starring Burt Reynolds?  The goal was to drive from one side of the US to the other in record time, and anything was fair game.

Apart from thin plots and lots of action scenes, the movie title has inspired the inaugural Plasmaball Run.

Several West Australian members of AEVA decided we should set a challenging road trip in some more affordable EVs.  Get to Esperance as quick as you can, using whatever means you can, so long as it was electric.  At about 700 km, it’s a long trip no matter which route you take. Power out here is good, just not particularly abundant.

The AEVA has helped establish a network of three-phase sockets at pubs, roadhouses and shire buildings forming the basis of our “bush standard” EV charging infrastructure.  We live in hope there will be some DC fast chargers on the road to Esperance in the next year.

Perth to Esperance in blue (Zoe) grey (Leaf 2.0) and red (Kona EV)
Perth to Esperance in blue (Zoe) grey (Leaf 2.0) and red (Kona EV)

Perth to Esperance in blue (Zoe) grey (Leaf 2.0) and red (Kona EV)

The trip would be entirely manageable in even the basest model Tesla.  But for this trip we had a Hyundai Kona EV, the brand new Nissan Leaf and the Renault Zoe.

Our goal was to demonstrate that it’s entirely possible to travel rural Australia in a mid-range EV, despite there being effectively no charging network.

It was also a great opportunity to highlight the amazing scenery over here, with Esperance being home to some of Australia’s most iconic beaches.

Jon and his mum Fran were travelling in his Kona EV – a compact SUV with a comfortable 400km highway range.  Kat and I were loaned the unmistakably decaled demonstrator Renault Zoe thanks to Melville Renault, while Nissan Australia loaned Matt and Denni their Euro-spec Nissan Leaf 2.0 demo car.

Both the Zoe and the leaf have ~40 kWh batteries which on paper, were quite capable of managing the two hour drives between charge points.

The Leaf and Kona EV only have 7 kW on-board chargers, so a full recharge would take 6 to 9 hours!  The solution was therefore to pack a portable DC fast charger powered from a 32 amp three-phase socket.  This way about 16 kW could be pushed into the cars CHAdeMO port, allowing for a 2.5 to 3 hour full charge at each stop.

The Zoe on the other hand has a 22 kW AC onboard charger which uses the same power electronics in the drive inverter.

Some versions of the Zoe will allow up to 42 kW charging, however efficiency takes a hit at lower charge currents.  22 kW meant we could drive for two hours and charge for (theoretically) two hours.  My calculations put this as a 14 hour trip using the available power points to their fullest.

Matt and Denni set off on Thursday evening, spending the night at the Bedford Arms Hotel in Brookton.  The Leaf charged happily at 7 kW from the public charger at the roadhouse in the meantime.  This proved a far more manageable alternative to rising at 3 am to get ahead of us in the Zoe!

Kat and I set off at 6 am on Friday morning after fully charging the car the night before (something most motoring journalists always seem to forget to do).  Jon and Fran set off from Cockburn slightly earlier at 5.30am but took a different route; via the wool capital of Wagin before heading due east from there.

The Zoe took a little bit of getting used to – The menu screens were not intuitive and for some reason perhaps unique to this particular car, there was no clock.  One of the most valuable tools when driving an EV is a convenient chronometer and for some frustrating reason, the time could not be set!

I suspect being a demo car it hadn’t been loaded with the latest firmware so it was bound to have a few quirks.  Expecting the energy consumption to be somewhere between 140 and 170 Wh/km, I was banking on a 1.5 hour recharge at Brookton.

To our surprise though, the car was telling us we’d already used 60% of the battery in just 115 km of driving.

The Zoe charged at 22 kW from this public charger while we enjoyed breakfast inside. Supplied
The Zoe charged at 22 kW from this public charger while we enjoyed breakfast inside. Supplied

The Zoe charged at 22 kW from this public charger while we enjoyed breakfast inside.

The Leaf was a little better on energy consumption, but Matt and Denni’s route took them up the Darling scarp which easily subtracts 20 km of range.  By the time they got to Brookton they had consumed 60 % of their range also.

The first part of this trip was sandplain suburbia, sipping a mere 150 Wh/km.  Matt had allowed for 185 Wh/km to clear the top of the ancient fault line which seemed consistent with their driving.

Jon and Fran cruised effortlessly through the hills in the Kona clearing the way with a newly installed ShooRoo – sound insurance for this hour of travel!  The Kona averaged a mere 159 Wh/km at 100 km/h, arriving on schedule at 7.30am.

Sharon from the Wagin Motel was perplexed when the pair opted for the 3 phase outlet over their Tesla Destination charger.  She watched with awe as the multitude of cables was unraveled from the portable DC charger, the other end of which was plugged into the front of the car.  Just a 50 minute break added 100 km of range before setting off again.

Back in the Zoe, we left Brookton with 90% of a charge, figuring we’d surely have enough energy to make the 200 km stretch to Hyden.  Considering the Zoe claimed a 300 km range, it seemed a conservative number.

As we approached half way, it became clear we didn’t have enough to make the distance.  A quick scan of the Plugshare app revealed several three phase sockets in Corrigin, including a 20 amp socket behind the pub.

We’d borrowed a friend’s JuiceBooster2; an extremely versatile Type-2 EVSE which comes with all manner of electrical protection and a multitude of different adaptors.

The pub had just opened its doors so after plugging in we ordered some (non-alcoholic) drinks.  The Irish barmaid told us about her parents and how they still drive around in a first generation Nissan Leaf!

The publican, Scott, introduced himself to us and it was clear he wasn’t quite so enamoured with the concept.  After some discussion he seemed skeptical of EV charging as a service and was concerned about what it would cost him.

Scott also owns the motel and roadhouse in town, and while the sockets at both places were on Plugshare, he simply wasn’t that keen on the idea.

“We’ve had Tesla owners come through here and plug in, and insist the power ought to be free because they’re buying lunch.  But the bloke who fills up with diesel and buys a sandwich isn’t getting free fuel – why should you?” he asked.  “My power bills are huge – I want to know what’s this going to cost me?”

It’s a fair question, and the prospect of EV drivers getting something for nothing doesn’t sit well.  I explained to him that my short stop with the Zoe would cost about $3.50 in power, while a full charge on a Tesla might cost about $40.

I reminded him he is absolutely within his rights to charge for the power, and if accounting for it was important to him he could install a unit much like Brookton has.  But at $2000+ it would never pay for itself, and a 50 kW DC fast charger would make even less sense without some kind of government support.

We left Corrigin with a feeling that while the transition to EVs is well underway, it won’t all be smooth sailing.

The Zoe’s brief top-up proved essential as we rolled into Hyden with about 7 km remaining on the guess-o-meter.  We plugged the JB2 into an AEVA-supported 32 amp 3-phase socket and started to charge.

We walked down to the local bakery where we enjoyed a sandwich and coffee.  The plan was to charge here to 100% as it was clear we’d need all the range we could muster for the next 195 km leg to Ravensthorpe.

We returned to the car some 25 minutes later to find it had stopped charging!  I unplugged the setup and started again, this time is continued to charge seemingly unhindered.  Confident it was just a mere glitch we set off on a walk to Wave Rock – a unique granite outcrop sporting a 15 metre overhanging wall.

The walk took longer than expected, so you can imagine the disappointment once we discovered a 60 % state of charge.  We restarted the charge which continued for another 1.5 hours to full.

Already two hours behind schedule we finally left Hyden for Ravensthorpe.  With a full charge and constant, flat roads it was the perfect test to see how far we could go under what were effectively ideal EV driving conditions.

Kat poses in front of Hyden’s Wave Rock. Supplied
Kat poses in front of Hyden’s Wave Rock. Supplied

Caution rather than valour was Matt and Denni’s approach to the Plasmaball Run.  Kulin is 40 km south of Corrigin – wheatbelt heartland.  There is no petrol station in Kulin; the cafe in town has the original lone pump for decorative nostalgia.

The WA state government ‘Royalties for Regions’ scheme funded a 24 hour self-serve pair of fuel bowsers.  A quick getaway was foiled by the stream of curious locals and travelers constantly enquired about the Leaf and the whole charging process!

This simply meant a shorter recharge at Lake Grace was required.  Only one onlooker was skeptical, spouting the standard lines of EVs being worse for the environment / not suitable / never work usual misinformation.

Matt would frequently remind them – “Horses for courses.  Use the right tool for the job. Diesel will move rural Australia for a while but not forever”.

He would remind folks that the shift to EVs was transition to embrace, not some instant switch to be feared.  He would cheekily go on to tease with “It just 8 seconds to recharge at home; four seconds to plug in and four more to unplug the next morning…” admitting it is a somewhat mischievous statement.

By mid-morning they set off along the Tin-Horse Highway; a series of sculptures made from old car exhausts attached to 44 gallon drums and other old farm machinery, all resembling anthropomorphised animals in various positions and gestures.  An interesting way to welcome you to Lake Grace!

Making friends in Kulin, WA. Supplied
Making friends in Kulin, WA. Supplied

Matt and Denni lost more time at Lake Grace as inquisitive truck drivers and curious grey nomads engaged in friendly chats about the transition to EVs.  Needing a full battery for the unexplored range of 186km to Ravensthorpe, conversational delays were not an issue.

Fully charged the Nissan and its occupants set off with the cruise control set at 80 km/h.  A straight line of 115 km to Lake King, only interrupted three bends near the community of Newdegate, overshadowed by its magnificently painted grain silos.

Making good progress, Matt began to wonder – where are the others up to?  No Plugshare check-ins at Ravensthorpe by anyone yet!  Was Jon being sneaky not giving away clues?  Where were Chris and Kat in the Zoe?  Being too cynical to trust that the others would play fair, the cruise control was adjusted upwards to 90 km/h.

To his surprise, the economy appeared to improve!  A reading of 157 Wh/km suggested something odd.  Without word on the whereabouts of the others they continued on to Ravensthorpe, hopeful to avoid a queue at the charger!

Hoping to avoid three EVs descending onto one charger Matt lifted the cruise to 105 km/h, if nothing else to assess the consumption.

Well, until the road works anyway.

An hour or so ahead of Matt, Jon and Fran parked the Kona at the Lake Grace Roadhouse.  They unraveled the cables and charger as per usual, getting the system down pat.  The Delta portable charger would easily push another 100 km range into the battery per hour of charging.

They left Cockburn with 450 km on the guess-o-meter and after having travelled 328 km to Lake Grace with a one hour charge in Wagin, a very confidence-inspiring 332 km remained on the readout.  There were only 186 km to Ravensthorpe under perfect conditions.

The Kona EV was giving a pretty steady 159 Wh/km at 100 km/h; a testament to Hyundai’s goal of high efficiency electric motoring.

The Kona EV charges at Ravensthorpe (DC fast charger hidden inside).
The Kona EV charges at Ravensthorpe (DC fast charger hidden inside). Supplied

Jon and Fran arrived at Ravensthorpe ahead of the others, charged and moved on well before the others had even left their last stops.  A slow internet connection might be to blame for the lack of updates to Plugshare – the perils of a not-quite-realtime system.

Their last quick stop was in Munglinup for a courtesy recharge, mainly just to help support the cause.  Munglinup was one of the first localities to embrace an AEVA-backed three-phase socket, and Jon had been instrumental in setting it up with Richard the proprietor.

Richard was not there but a donation was made for the few minutes charging performed.  The roadhouse is a great little place with lots of gardens and a friendly atmosphere.  The Kona-powered duo pushed on to Esperance, with a comfortable 30 km range to spare.  Only 12.5 hours travel time highlighted the obvious benefits of a large battery.

Matt and Denni recharged in Ravensthorpe at 3 pm with 17 % left in the battery.  Still no check-ins from the others though.  Having seen the efficiency on this run, the LEAF was well placed to hit Esperance in one last charge.

The final 187 km would be tackled with a full battery at 5 pm, but the pair encountered yet more road works and large (often deceased) wildlife.

Lambs, swooping owls and some very mobile wallabies kept them alert while another stretch of roadworks saw them roll into Esperance at 7:30 pm with 17 % remaining charge.  So the New Nissan Leaf offers a no-stress range of about 200 km at 95 km/h.

Notably, a distance of 733 km with an average consumption of 154Wh/km and a total travel time of 17.5 hours suggests that while the Leaf can be driven long distances through regions with effectively no charging infrastructure, it’s probably not the right tool for the job.

200 Wh/km is pretty poor economy for a car the size of the Zoe.  Well-inflated tyres, a slight tailwind and keeping the cruise control set to 98 km/h still saw us squeaking into Ravensthorpe Green Haven Caravan Park on empty.  It seemed 200 km was a hard range limit.

Sure enough the Tesla destination charger was patiently waiting for us, which we finally plugged into at dusk.  The staff at the caravan park were very friendly and helpful – “Yep, 50 cents a unit, just pay at the office when you’re done”.

When it comes to charging as a service, these folks clearly ‘got it’.  It seemed to be charging well when we left for the pub for dinner.

The Ravensthorpe Hotel was hopping with a sea of fluorescent orange shirts and steel-capped boots.  Workers from the Galaxy lithium mine, as well as those managing the currently idle FQM nickel mine made up the numbers.

Ravensthorpe will welcome the electric car boom with open arms since the region is critical for supplying the world with essential battery resources, but is currently in need of a boost.

It hadn’t been 2 hours before we returned to the Zoe for a sadly familiar sight.  27 % state of charge!  It would be at least two hours before we could set off again.  What on Earth is causing this?  Was it locking the car?  Was it not locking the car?  Was it a dodgy connector?

Either way, we restarted the charge and settled in to a boring, cold night waiting in the car.  Like a watched kettle never boiling, the last 5 % was agony.  We left a $20 note in the letterbox for the caravan park staff and set off for the last leg into town.

Economy and road works be damned, I set the cruise control to 100 km/h and steered the car through the dark southern skies into Esperance.

The shortest route to the motel was chosen, ensuring we rolled in on empty.  The range remaining estimate gave up at 5 km, instead showing a nebulous (–).  Just after midnight, 18 hours after setting off, we plugged into a 10 amp socket, enjoyed the most blissful hot shower and slept the sleep of the dead.

***

EV road trippers in Esperance: Left to right Denni, Kat, Fran, Jon, Chris and Matt.
EV road trippers in Esperance: Left to right Denni, Kat, Fran, Jon, Chris and Matt. Supplied

Saturday brunch was delightful – local café Brown Sugar was adorned with indigenous art from the region, along with landscape paintings stunning coastlines.

All six weary travelers enjoyed regaling stories from the road.  We moved on to the Esperance foreshore where we met with local journalists who were keen to know more about our trip – Why?  How long? Where did you charge?

Perhaps the most amusing one was “But will they work in Esperance?” I smiled, turned around and looked at the three electric cars parked before us.  I guess so!  People would do double-takes as they made their way past the three cars; the bold livery on the Zoe being the only real giveaway the vehicles were not petrol powered.

One professional couple had made arrangements to see us specifically as they were keen to replace their ‘town car’ with a new Nissan Leaf.

Considering everyone on the south coast has at least one four wheel drive, replacing the other family car with electric seems obvious.  We look forward to hearing the good news on their purchase come August!

Three EVs parked at the Esperance foreshore.
Three EVs parked at the Esperance foreshore. Supplied

We went into full tourist mode on Sunday.  Leaving with a full overnight charge we had plenty of range to do the Great Ocean Drive; a loop taking you past Pink Lake, past the site of Australia’s first wind farm (and two more) as well as endless white sandy beaches bracketed by granite outcrops and perfect turquoise water.

After lunch we travelled out to Lucky Bay – best known for its impossibly white beaches, blue water and of course the very photogenic kangaroos.

The Kona EV visits Cape LeGrand National Park.
The Kona EV visits Cape LeGrand National Park. Supplied

All three vehicles and their occupants said goodbye to Esperance as we made our way back to Perth.  Matt and Denni opted to leave that morning to spend the night in Lake Grace, making for a shorter day’s drive back to Perth.

Kat and I set off before sunrise in the Zoe but not before using the pre-conditioning feature on the remote.  When plugged into a charger the vehicle’s climate control system can be fired up for 10 minutes.

Considering it was barely 9 degrees C, this was a pleasant welcome to the morning.  Esperance to Ravensthorpe at 98 km/h was comfortable and the energy consumption was consistent, albeit high.  Driving without heat to conserve range is a noble endeavor, but boy it’s not fun.

The windscreen would fog up quickly as we dipped through broad valleys, but the demister worked almost instantly.  The little bit of warm air was a nice respite, though it did cause the guess-o-meter to subtract about 10 km in an instant.  Clearly it was to be used judiciously!

The familiar melody of “CHARGE YOUR CAR!” filled the cabin as we pulled up at Green Haven again.  A young family who were loading their 4×4 and trailer near the charger were immediately intrigued by the process.  They were clearly excited for the prospect of more affordable EVs, and electric adventure vehicles in particular.

I plugged in and it began charging; but for how long?

A short walk to the service station for a coffee would be enough time to assess the progress.  Sure enough, the now familiar scene of a car at 25% and no means to charge it was upon us.

Repeated efforts only caused the charge to end sooner, and on the last attempt it generated noises no machine outside of a TIG welder should make.  It charged just fine on 10 amps, but unfortunately we didn’t have a spare 20 hours.  This car was going home on a flatbed and we were taking the bus.

The Zoe informed us yet again it was unable to be charged. Supplied
The Zoe informed us yet again it was unable to be charged. Supplied

TransWA had a service rolling through town in about 40 minutes.  Enough time to pack all of our stuff onto our shoulders and walk up the hill to the bus stop.  We paid for our tickets to the driver and took our seats.

“Did your car break down? What happened?” he asked.  I paused and wondered if it was worth telling the whole long story, or just being succinct.

“Fuel pump” I quipped.

Jon had checked into the Ravensthorpe charger about an hour after we left.  It must have been obvious we had difficulties; an EV in Ravensthorpe which is neither charging nor driving was clearly in trouble.  Melville Renault were great – cars break down, it just happens sometimes and EVs are no exception.

It should happen far less often, but a charger failure is probably akin to a fuel pump failure – a small problem with major implications.  Renault Roadside assistance collected the car later in the week.

The trip really highlighted the need for a decent fast charge network in regional WA.  To a lesser extent, it also highlighted the utility of a 60+ kWh battery for touring.  40 kWh makes for a capable capable city car, especially in a sprawling metropolis like Perth where clocking up 150 km in a day is possible.

But a network of even just 50 kW DC fast chargers will add fast range to every EV in the state.

With the prospect of 350kW chargers adding 300 km of range in 10 minutes, road tripping in EVs will be a doddle.  Leaf version 2.1 with its 60 kWh battery will see it match the Kona for range and utility, making the occasional country trip feasible.

The Zoe’s charger problem was a downer on what was an otherwise very easy drive.  I’ve been around EVs long enough to have developed a sense of “range resilience”.

I never felt like we wouldn’t make it to a charger in time.  But the high energy consumption of the Zoe at highway speeds is concerning and possibly a sign of issues with the inverter unit.  Even so, 200 km at 100 km/h is an entirely useful range and well within our needs.

The 2020 iteration of the Zoe will have CCS2 DC fast charging standard, and comes with an extra 10 kWh of battery.  This makes even the longest stretches of most routes possible, but not before we get a few more DC fast chargers out in the regions.

Matt’s only regret was that he only found the new Leaf’s “Sport Mode” when he was back in Perth; no shortage of power at the wheels with this switched on!

Jon’s Kona was without a doubt the Plasmaball run champion for 2019; the extra battery capacity affords a clear advantage.  However they were lucky they had the portable DC fast charging option, otherwise they might have struggled to find something to do in Lake Grace for 9 hours!

So there you have it – we proved you can drive three different non-Tesla EVs to far off places within a day.  We never said it was easy, but it’s undoubtedly possible in spite of the lack of infrastructure.  I look forward to repeating this again soon.  Where next?

This article was written with assistance from Matt Clifton and Jon Edwards.

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