Our journey started in Portland, Maine, with doughnuts and an app designed to guide us across New England while keeping our electric vehicles in motion.
At a time when EV purchases are on the rise, our question was simple: Are there enough chargers around to make this a realistic choice for long-distance rides? And because leaf-peeper season was over, we made round confections the driving force behind our drive.
Whether it’s gas prices, the climate emergency, or the cute Super Bowl commercials, electric car sales are surging like never before.
In Massachusetts, the share of registrations for electric cars has more than tripled since 2019 and represents 5 percent of all new cars registered in 2022. It’s a similar story across New England and across the country.
But there’s one big adjustment to owning an electric car: EV drivers cannot rely on the century-old ecosystem of a gas station around every corner. Instead, they need to plan their trips based on the availability of a growing but still spotty network of charging stations. Tesla has built its own network of widespread and speedy chargers but, at least for now, they’re only accessible to Tesla EVs.
The build-out of charging infrastructure is critical if the region wants to successfully entice millions of car owners to make the switch to electric and slash climate-warming emissions. After all, drivers aren’t likely to ditch their gas vehicle if they’re going to have to worry constantly about running out of charge.
To test the current state of EV infrastructure, we took off on a 400-mile road trip across New England in two typical — but quite different — electric cars. One of us (Aaron) drove a Kia Niro EV purchased a year ago while the other (Sabrina) rented the flashy Tesla Model 3 Performance.
The Niro costs about $40,000, has an EPA-rated range of 240 miles, and looks and drives like an ordinary car. The Tesla Model 3 Performance costs nearly $60,000, has an EPA range of more than 300 miles, and sports the company’s minimalist styling. It also goes zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.1 seconds, which rivals some of the world’s fastest sports cars.
Given Tesla’s charging network advantage, we expected the Kia would have more issues on the road — and we were right. But neither one of us ever came close to running out of power as we enjoyed a perfect day and some nearly perfect doughnuts.
We started the day bright and early in Portland, at Holy Donut on Commercial Street, home of the gourmet potato doughnut. The dark chocolate sea salt did not disappoint: moist, rich, and just the right touch of salt.
Unlike road-tripping in a regular car, we knew we needed to do some advance planning to make sure we were near chargers when our EVs’ batteries ran down.
Huddled over coffee at Holy Donut, we used an EV-specific app called A Better Route Planner, or ABRP, to map our journey. After a few seconds, the app spat out recommended routes, complete with charging stops along the way.
Anna Vanderspek, electric vehicle program director of the advocacy group Green Energy Consumers Alliance, said that kind of planning is key to successful road trips, but that traveling in an EV should be simpler. “We’ve got these early adopters who will go to A Better Route Planner and figure it out,” she said. “But if we want to accelerate adoption, which we do, we obviously need more.”
For the Tesla, using the app wasn’t strictly necessary, as the car’s built-in navigation app can plan routes with stops at the company’s Supercharger stations.
On the other hand, even using ABRP doesn’t solve all challenges for non-Tesla drivers, because some areas lack adequate charging. On Cape Cod, for example, there is only a single fast-charging station with two connections, located in Hyannis. Tesla has four stations spread over the Cape, with a total of 42 connections. In Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, Tesla accounts for two-thirds of all fast chargers, while it’s half in Vermont, according to federal data.
As we hit the road, we left Portland and drove south and west heading to an old-school gem, Muriel’s Donuts in Lebanon, N.H. Passing through the bare forests of the White Mountains provided a scenic backdrop for the longest stretch of driving of the day.
The Tesla taught us some EV lessons right away: Parking outside in the cold overnight before our road trip had drained some of its battery. And cruising along at 80 miles per hour drains the battery much faster than if you stick to the speed limit.
Thankfully, there were ample options to make an unplanned stop at one of Tesla’s Superchargers along that stretch of highway in New Hampshire. One 10-minute top-off later, the car was back on the road.
The Kia, meanwhile, made it to Muriel’s in under 2½ hours without a stop, using about 80 percent of its charge. The Tesla arrived a bit later, thanks to the unscheduled stop, but had more than a quarter of its battery left.
The doughnuts at Muriel’s looked right out of the 1960s. Served through a window in the bare bakery by owner Muriel Maville, the basics on offer included old-fashioned doughnuts and crullers, plain or sugar-coated, with an option for raspberry jam filling. The 85-year-old proprietor was multitasking, overseeing a batch of crullers and flipping them with a wooden dowel as she rang up just under $4 for four doughnuts (cash only).
Not far from Muriel’s, the Tesla’s first planned charging stop of the day was in the parking lot of the Price Chopper in West Lebanon, while the Kia’s was at a station run by Electrify America outside a Walmart in the same town.
A key variable for EV road trips is a vehicle’s maximum rate of charging, which can mean the difference between waiting 15 minutes or closer to an hour.
But reaching the maximum requires an equally speedy charging station. For Teslas, that’s no problem, as the Supercharger network is composed entirely of very fast chargers. The Model 3 can add 175 miles of range in 15 minutes. For the rest of the world, it’s hit or miss. Adding 175 miles to the Kia’s range takes three or four times as long. Cold weather, underperforming equipment, and other variables can also affect charging speeds.
Things did not go smoothly outside Walmart for the Kia. There were four chargers, but one was offline and another was in use. At the first charger, the rate was abysmally slow — less than one-third the Niro’s max, meaning it would take an hour and a half to charge. And because of New Hampshire utility regulations, the cost is based on the time it’s used, not by the amount of electricity consumed, so slow also meant more expensive.
Thankfully, there was another charger available. It was better but still slower than expected, taking just over an hour to get the battery from 18 percent to 80 percent. The bill came to about $11.
Meanwhile, at the Price Chopper, with a gleaming row of 17 chargers, the Tesla charged in under 30 minutes. The cost? $15.64.
After charging, we headed south, skirting the Green Mountains along Interstate 91 through Vermont.
Arriving at the final doughnut destination — West Springfield’s Donut Dip — was like stepping into the 1950s, with chrome counters, racks of doughnuts, and a red neon sign out front.
For one of us (Sabrina), there was a clear winner at Donut Dip: the sour cream doughnut, which tasted less like a doughnut and more like a nostalgia bomb: basically a booze-less version of the whiskey cake her family makes for special occasions. It was super sweet, impossibly moist, and encased in a beautiful brown crunchy exterior.
The Kia driver, meanwhile, was in heaven with the chocolate glazed. He also got a nice surprise when he pulled into a nearby mall parking lot in Chicopee that houses the very first Electrify America location. On previous visits this year, some chargers were not working and there was sometimes a 30-minute (or longer) wait for an open space.
But after a September overhaul, all four chargers were working and unoccupied. Forty minutes and $7.41 later, the Kia was ready to go.
As Chicopee’s charger improvements hint, both reliability and availability problems are being addressed. Electrify America, which has more than 800 charging stations and 3,500 chargers in North America, is in the process of replacing 300 of its oldest chargers this year.
The Biden administration, which is touting EVs as a big part of curbing greenhouse gas emissions, set aside $5 billion over five years in the infrastructure bill for more charging improvements. And in Massachusetts, the Department of Public Utilities recently approved utility plans to spend nearly $400 million on EV charging and market development over the next four years, including investments in public fast chargers.
As expected, the Tesla’s drive home was smooth. The Charlton Service Plaza on the Massachusetts Turnpike had eight of Tesla’s Superchargers, all available. It took less than 20 minutes — long enough to make the day’s first non-doughnut food purchase — before getting back on the road to Maine.
All in all, the charging experiences were better than we expected. It was definitely easier to fill the Tesla. But the disparity wasn’t quite as pronounced as one of us (Aaron) experienced over the past year, or as is often reported by other drivers. And the Kia never came close to running out of charge.
But not everyone wants to plan every trip on a specialized app. And to some degree, the Kia was lucky that fast chargers were available along the day’s route. For people who can’t afford a Tesla or drive through areas with fewer good charging options, the infrastructure bill’s improvements can’t come fast enough.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, the location of Holy Donut was misstated. It is on Commercial Street in Portland.