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My road trip revealed that electric cars still have a long way to go

Out on the highway, recharging an EV other than a Tesla is much harder than it should be.

Globe Staff/Adobe

I love a road trip. But the one I was about to embark on would be different — no mere adventure. It would cover 1,000 miles, almost entirely on Interstate 95, from Boston to Savannah, Ga., and the mode of transport would be a fully electric vehicle, or EV.

I had made this trip in a gas-powered car before — including twice in a single (long) day. This time I wanted to see for myself whether the infrastructure is in place to go green on the open highway. If it isn’t adequate on the East Coast’s principal north-south corridor, the industry’s progress is clearly not keeping up with global warming, and EVs still are primarily for people who want, and can afford, both a “home” car and an “away” car.

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Very early on a cold December morning, I set out in my new Kia EV with a friend. We both felt prepared for this alternative form of transportation, in part because Massachusetts, while it is far from its goal, is well ahead of the curve when it comes to charging stations on or near major highways. In addition, we were traveling with the Kia’s dashboard charging station locator and the naive belief that EV charging stations would be available at any Interstate 95 rest stops that included a gas station.

My Kia has a range of roughly 200 miles, but we stopped to recharge eight times on our trip, which is several more than should have been necessary. That happened because of some big challenges we encountered.

First, if you are a driver of a non-Tesla EV and are expecting to find a reasonable number of universal charging stations in rest stops on I-95 between New Jersey and Georgia, you will be disappointed. This is problematic not only because some of us refuse to put an additional dime in Elon Musk’s pocket by buying a Tesla, but also because Tesla’s chargers don’t work for other EVs. And while we saw a bevy of Tesla’s squat white charging stations at rest stops from New Jersey to Georgia, we were able to locate only a single rest stop south of New York — the last one in Delaware, as you’re heading south — that had charging stations our Kia could use. Perhaps such stations exist at other rest areas, but they weren’t visible from the highway or in a quick spin through the stops, and they weren’t indicated by the Kia’s dashboard locator.

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Second, you need a smartphone app to locate the non-Tesla fast charging stations.

Not all EV charging stations are created equal. Level 1 chargers, which are the least powerful, deliver an average of four miles of driving range per hour of charge. They are minimally acceptable for home use and essentially worthless on a road trip, even though they are often free to use. Level 2 chargers deliver an average of 32 miles of range per hour of charge and require several hours for a full charge, but they work in a pinch. The gold standard for open-road charging is Level 3, which can deliver a full charge in an hour or less. In my car, a full charge at one of these stations costs less than $30.

The problem is that you can’t find the Level 3 fast-charging stations or time your visits to them without an app that accurately identifies their availability. My Kia’s dashboard app led us to a private university parking garage that was off-limits and a sketchy truck stop with a dilapidated — and inoperable — charger wedged between two huge trucks.

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Far too frequently, the dashboard app directed us to free slow chargers, rather than to the fast chargers. One time, in New Jersey, it directed us to the Woodbridge Center shopping mall, where two of the best chargers were occupied — something that a good app can track in real time — and the third was a Level 2 that would have required seven hours for a full charge. So we ventured back onto the turnpike, where we found no universal chargers. In the nick of time, the dashboard app sent us to the parking lot of an auto parts store in Iselin, where we sat for an hour and 20 minutes until the battery charge reached 70 percent.

A Tesla Supercharger location at a Hilton hotel in Bozeman, Mont. Montana's government recently counted 57 charging stations in the state, most of them clustered in towns and cities rather than along the highway.Louise Johns/Bloomberg

By the time night was falling, we were in Delaware, having traveled a little over a third of the distance to Savannah in the same time that it had previously taken us to reach the Georgia border in gas-fueled cars. Finding no chargers in Newark, Del., and with a charge dangerously close to zero, we were despondent. We called around until we found a hotel that had a Level 3 universal charging station. It turned out to be broken. We were carrying my Level 1 home garage charger with us, and the hotel allowed us to plug into an outside wall outlet overnight, which, after nine hours, managed to get us to 30 miles capacity.

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Things improved the next day when we began using an independent app called ChargeHub, which my friend found online. It attempts to identify all charging stations and whether the stations are occupied. We kept tracking a single charger at one whiskey tavern off the highway and were amused that it always seemed to be busy. (I imagined a lot of conversations that began “Sorry, honey, it took forever to get a full charge.”) To be clear, these charging stations in the mid-Atlantic and southern portion of I-95 are not on the highway (with the exception of the last rest stop in Delaware), but they generally are within a mile or so of it. We found some in shopping malls, often near a Walmart or a McDonald’s.

On the second very long day of what was intended to be a one-day drive, we arrived in Savannah at 1 a.m. According to the dashboard indicator, we had only 11 miles of range left.

An EVgo fast charge station in Detroit.Paul Sancya/Associated Press

In the days that followed, I did my best to answer the question that motivated my road trip: Is the infrastructure in place to go green on the open highway?

My conclusion: Sort of. It’s true only if the driver is willing and able to spend about 75 percent more time on the road and prepared to educate herself as to how best to navigate her trip. The environmental benefit of EVs makes it worthwhile from my perspective, and hitting pause on one’s road trip can be beneficial in other ways, like meal breaks and sightseeing. But without such a commitment, EVs are, for now, best suited to local outings and easygoing long trips where the the journey can be the destination.

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This is obviously not an acceptable state of affairs. We need a charging-infrastructure effort that takes far fewer years to implement and permits far fewer compromises than what current federal laws and programs are set up to provide. These current measures include the five-year program for funding EV charging infrastructure under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 and last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, which will offer tax credits for car charging stations primarily in low-income communities and non-urban areas.

First, Congress should give priority to the construction of charging stations at rest stops on the Interstate Highway System. Every such rest stop needs to be equipped in the next year with at least four universal fast chargers. The government can entice operators with generous tax credits available immediately and can encourage states to facilitate the effort with reminders that the federal government has the right to control the uses that the states permit in such rest stops.

Second, in a much more expedited period, Tesla should be required to design and maintain universal adapters for use at public rest stops where only Tesla’s Superchargers are situated. Tesla makes available adapters to its own customers to use at universal charging stations, so one can infer that an adapter can readily be made available for use in the other direction. It is unimaginable that gas stations would maintain separate pumps for one manufacturer’s cars, so why should public land where EV charging stations are located be any different? (Tesla representatives did not respond to queries from Globe Ideas.)

An electrical vehicle charging station near Town Hall in Surfside, Fla.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Finally, all EV manufacturers should be incentivized in the short term and required in the long term to include as standard dashboard equipment an onboard charging station locator that is comprehensive and accurate with real-time information about occupancy, akin to what ChargeHub and similar apps offer.

There is a certain poetic irony in the visual presentation of two of the leading EV fast-charging station operators. Tesla Superchargers are eye-catching, with a neon red light that emphasizes certain design features. Electrify America’s charging stations are more statuesque than the Tesla version, their graceful design emphasized in stunning neon green. I was struck by the obvious. Red means stop. Green means go.

The accessibility and sheer number of EV charging stations are some of the most important factors upon which the viability of the EV industry depends. We need to put a stop to exclusivity and exclusion and give the green light to cooperation and universality. Let’s get going.

Joan Lukey, a past president of the American College of Trial Lawyers and the Boston Bar Association, is a practicing attorney at Choate Hall & Stewart in Boston.