Ultralong-Range Electric Cars Are Arriving. Say Goodbye to Charging Stops.

Source: By Christopher Mims, Wall Street Journal • Posted: Sunday, June 4, 2023

We drove 1,000 miles across two countries without stopping just to charge, thanks to a new class of EVs

If you want to experience the future of fully electrified transportation today, all you have to do is buy a $138,000 electric vehicle, be flexible about where you park it at night—and exercise some patience.

Those are a few of the things I learned on a 1,000-mile road trip in an EV in which I never had to stop just to recharge. In a Lucid Air Grand Touring, I was able to go from New York City to Montreal and back while only charging overnight. Because my itinerary allowed it, I was able to do so on the kind of slower, widely-available chargers that are increasingly plentiful in the U.S., and seemingly ubiquitous in EV-obsessed Canada.

A road trip with this itinerary, and no daytime stops to charge, would have been impossible before last year. That’s when a new class of ultralong-range EVs debuted, including the Tesla Model S Long Range, which reached an Environmental Protection Agency-estimated range of 405 miles, and the Lucid Air Dream Edition, with an EPA range of 520 miles (the model I drove is rated at 516 miles). For perspective, even an efficient conventional auto like the Honda Civic has an EPA estimated city/highway combined range of about 450 miles on a tank of gas.

For now, this kind of charging stop-free road trip is solely the privilege of those able to pay for it—even the less expensive long-range Tesla starts at around $89,000.

In part, this is because ultralong-range electric vehicles currently require both relatively big (and expensive) batteries, and extreme measures for making the vehicle aerodynamic and lightweight. But that won’t always be the case, say the engineers I spoke with, many of whom are designing future generations of advanced EVs.

Once perfected and available in the mainstream, these ultraefficient EVs could eliminate range anxiety—the fear of running out of juice before reaching the next charger—that has prevented many drivers from going electric. They could also reduce the need for charging stops for all but the longest road trips. The tech that makes long-range EVs possible could also be used in vehicles with much more modest range, allowing their batteries—traditionally the most expensive part of an EV—to be much smaller. In turn, this might finally make most EVs cheaper to own and operate than gasoline vehicles.

Operators of fleet vehicles like delivery vans, taxis and Ubers, could refuel when drivers go off-shift. The ultralong range EVs might be a solution for commuters who don’t have a garage to park them in at night, and only fast-charge them once every couple of weeks.

As I discovered on my road trip, however, getting to this future isn’t going to be without its speed bumps.

A car like a spaceship

The Lucid Air Grand Touring I borrowed is the product of a company led by Chief Executive Peter Rawlinson, a former Tesla executive. I’m not a car reviewer, but my colleague Dan Neil has, with minor caveats, raved about a similar model of this car.

It is in almost every respect a true high-performance luxury vehicle—it goes from 0 to 60 miles an hour in 3 seconds and looks good doing it. For my purposes, what mattered was that it goes farther than any other production vehicle you can buy.

Part of the reason it can achieve such extreme range is that its entire electric powertrain is so efficient—significantly more than rivals like, say, the PorscheTaycan.

A spokesperson for Porsche says the Taycan is engineered for a compelling driving experience, as opposed to extreme efficiency.

The other key is aerodynamics. One of the biggest thieves of efficiency in any vehicle is aerodynamic drag, says James Hawkins, senior director of engineering at Lucid. The Lucid Air Grand Touring is the most aerodynamic vehicle you can buy, edging out the Mercedes EQS, which only has a 350 mile range, compared with more than 500 miles on my Lucid, according to the manufacturers and the EPA.

Your mileage may vary

On day one of my road trip, I set out with modest goals. The distance between where I picked up the vehicle on the west side of Manhattan and my destination in Cambridge, Mass., just north of Boston, was a mere 220 miles, according to Google Maps. I could drive all the way there and back in this vehicle and not break a sweat, I figured.

Had I attempted that, I would have ended up stranded on the side of the road.

Despite nearly ideal driving conditions—clear weather, a warm spring day—the Lucid Air Grand Touring used up a little more than half its battery capacity. That left me with plenty of range at the end of my trip, but suggests that if I’d kept driving into the night, the vehicle would have gone a total of about 393 miles before running out of juice completely. That is a far cry from the 516 miles of range the EPA estimated this sedan could achieve.

Here’s part of what explains the difference: EPA estimates for range are consistently 12.5% higher than what those vehicles yield in steady, 75 mph highway driving, according to a recent paper published by SAE International. This happens for a number of reasons, but the result is that some vehicles tend to match their range estimates—particularly German ones—and others do not—typically the American ones.

The upshot is that anyone who buys the supposedly 500-mile Lucid thinking they could actually go 500 real-world miles on a highway on a single charge is in for a rude surprise. Real-world tests at 75 mph conducted by Car and Driverindicated the vehicle gets closer to 410 miles of range.

As for my own experience of the vehicle’s range, its sub-400 mile performance can be explained by the fact that the car spent a couple of hours running its AC during a photo shoot before I left Manhattan. And then there were the 21-inch wheels on this model, which a spokesman for Lucid said typically decrease the range of the vehicle by about 10% compared with range-maximizing 19-inch wheels.

Into the Wilds of French Canada

That first night, it took about 12 hours to recharge my vehicle to 100%—all while I ate, slept and had my morning coffee. This vehicle is capable of fast charging (more on that later), but such chargers remain relatively rare in the U.S., and anyone taking a typical road trip is far more likely to encounter the more common, and much cheaper, Level 2 chargers, like the one I used.

When planning the trip, I found a charging station on the popular website PlugShare. As part of the ChargePoint network, I could see from that company’s app that chargers at the local department of public works were available, and came with the added bonus of free overnight parking.

In Canada, my good luck ran out. All the charging plugs were occupied at my first stop, and the next charger I tried didn’t work. At the third charger I tried, someone stole my California license plate as I slept. All this after the French Canadian border agent promised that his country has a better charging network than the U.S. Despite my misadventures, it is true that Quebec, and Montreal in particular, have made public charging widely available and affordable.

The trip from Cambridge to Montreal spanned some 320 miles, and had taken me over a mountain pass in New Hampshire, which reduced the effective range of the vehicle even more than my less-than-conservative driving had. The result was that I arrived in Montreal with only a precious few kilowatt-hours of power left—just enough to scrounge for a charger and call it a night.

Once again, it was a far cry from the EPA estimated range of more than 500 miles, but it was still a full day’s drive.

When charging overnight really means charging for two nights

A number of factors other than aerodynamic drag make a meaningful difference in EV efficiency. One is the efficiency of the powertrain. In a gasoline vehicle, that might be all about an engine that uses less fuel and better mechanical linkages, but in an EV, it’s primarily about efficient electric motors, and having a high-voltage electrical system that minimizes losses as power is pumped out of or into the batteries during driving, or charging and regenerative braking.

There is a lot of physics happening here, but the bottom line is that, all other things being equal, more volts in an electrical system equals a more efficient powertrain, faster charging, and potentially better acceleration.

Here, Lucid is the champion, with a 924-volt electrical system. This system, combined with tech enabling batteries to accept all that electricity, means that the Lucid Air Grand Touring can charge fast enough to regain up to 300 miles of range in as little as 20 minutes—but only if it is connected to the right kind of charger, called a DC fast charger. Those remain rare in the U.S. and Canada, but there are efforts to address the problem.

Since I’d intended to stay in Montreal two nights, leaving the vehicle plugged in more than just overnight wasn’t a problem, but it is notable that on a Level 2 charger, it took a full 18 hours to completely refill the vehicle’s battery.

Future long-range EVs

Weight is another important factor in vehicle efficiency. The more mass you have to move, the more you need.

Some EV companies are experimenting with radically slimmed down vehicles to get more range. A startup called Aptera has a teardrop-shaped, three-wheeled prototype that carries two passengers and, the company says, can go 10 miles on one kilowatt-hour of electricity.

An Aptera Gamma vehicle, which the company says has superior efficiency. Photo: Aptera

By comparison, on the first and flattest leg of my road trip, the Lucid Air Grand Touring achieved what, its dashboard informed me, was 3.7 miles per kilowatt-hour of electricity pulled from its battery pack on the same amount of energy.

One other prototype vehicle achieves something close to the same efficiency is the Mercedes EQXX, which was designed and engineered by the same group responsible for the engines in Mercedes’ Formula One vehicles.

While Lucid is currently known for its luxury vehicles, its ultimate goal is to translate what it has achieved into more affordable ones. This is, of course, also the long-stated goal of Elon Musk, underpinning Tesla’s releases of progressively more affordable EVs.

As I cruised down the highway from Boston to New York City, I saw only a handful of other EVs—a Mustang Mach E, a smattering of Teslas, and, improbably, given the company sold fewer than 10,000 vehicles in 2022, another Lucid Air. It brought home the fact that for EVs to become truly widespread on anything close to the timetable projected by automakers and promised by governments, it will require every iota of efficiency engineers can squeeze out of them, in order to make them more capable and affordable.

WSJ columnist, Christopher Mims drives in the Lucid Air Grand Touring electric car in New York City. Some new electric vehicles are improving their ranges with better aerodynamics and battery efficiency. Photo: Danielle Amy for The Wall Street Journal

Write to Christopher Mims at christopher.mims@wsj.com