One day, 2018 might be looked back upon as the year that everything changed for cars. Every car maker is now hard at work building electric vehicles to replace their carbon-spewing predecessors. Tesla’s Roadster has literally been launched into space. And perhaps most importantly: Nissan has released a new version of the Leaf, a vehicle which might represent an unarguable move into the mainstream for EVs.
The car is significant, because on pretty much every metric it can go toe-to-toe with an equivalent gas guzzler. It looks the business - hell, it looks cool, certainly compared to its bubble-car-esque predecessor. And more importantly, purportedly has a range of 235 miles, meaning that drivers won’t be caught short, even with a punishingly long commute.
This range question is perhaps the most important one though. Charging takes much longer than simply squeezing a petrol pump for thirty seconds. And perhaps even more challengingly, charging infrastructure is still embryonic - meaning there are fewer places to charge when you need it.
So when driving an electric car, you really don’t want to run out of power.
And this made me curious: We can assume an EV will work just great for maybe 364 days a year, when all you’re doing is driving to work or in your local area. But what about that 365th day? Can an EV really work for longer journeys?
To find out, I persuaded Nissan to lend me a new Leaf for the weekend, and talked my partner Liz into joining me for a potentially perilous drive: We were going on a Range Anxiety Road Trip from London, to the middle of the Yorkshire Dales, and back. Would such a journey be too annoying in an EV? Would such a journey even be possible? Read on to find out.
Day 1 - East London to Leicestershire
So we set off on Thursday evening from our flat in East London, and decided to spend the night at my parent’s house in Leicestershire as it was on the way. To get there, we had to take the M11 to Cambridge, then the A14 - a journey of around 110 miles.
I’d say we fired up the Leaf - but that would be the wrong way to describe it. Instead, we hit the power button and the car, umm, booted up. Within seconds it was ready to drive - it booted much faster than a phone.
My first immediate impression? Holy hell this was a smooth drive. Because of the lack of gears and the lack of moving parts, the car felt stable on the road (the low centre of gravity due to the batteries being packed underneath probably helped too). Accelerating was like traversing a quadratic curve - no need for step-by-step gear changes like in a regular car. I could already tell it was going to be a joy to drive.
The Leaf itself doesn’t just have its electric power going for it: Like many modern cars, the dashboard is an array of buttons and confusing symbols. Having not read the manual, like all good tech nerds, I assumed that I’d figure out what everything does on the journey. But annoyingly, we couldn’t even work out how to turn on the entertainment centre/satnav system in the centre of the dashboard. Ah well, we’ll figure it out in the morning, when it is light outside, we thought.
Perhaps the most important question facing us though was about the range: Much like how your phone manufacturer will claim that the battery will last you for a couple of days, the real world is rather different to the laboratory. So though I was driving a car that had, on paper, 235 miles range, the actual predicted range on the dashboard was something like a still very impressive 140 miles (and this was after Nissan dropped the car with me, having driven it from some other unknown place in London).
Conceivably then, we could have got all of the way to my parents’ house on one charge. But there was just one problem: Rather than driving in the most fuel-efficient possible manner - which is at around 60mph - because the car was really fun to drive, I went a little bit faster than this on the motorway. By which I, of course, mean that I went exactly 70mph.
This meant that as we sped along, due to the laws of physics, the car was using energy inefficiently, so the estimated range diminished much more quickly - just as if you were hammering on the gas in a petrol car. So we had to stop and charge half way.
The types of chargers matter: Though there are thousands of chargers around the country listed, not only do different cars require different shaped plugs, but the speed of the charge can also vary: Whereas a rapid charger will get you to 80% from nothing in around 40 minutes, a fast charger could take anywhere between two and four hours, depending on it’s voltage.
Luckily then, pretty much every service station in the country is now outfitted with rapid chargers. We rolled into Cambridge’s “Xtra” service station after checking the super handy app Zap-Map, to find a couple of chargers operated by Ecotricity.
As it was our first time charging, it took a few minutes to get to grips with how things worked: First we had to figure out what type of charger the Leaf took - in this case, it was the DC CHAdeMO standard, and then we had to plug in. And then you should be able to use Ecotricity’s “Electric Highway” app on your phone to start the charge. After several tries though, for some reason the app wasn’t playing ball. And it wasn’t until after a few failed attempts that I spotted an icon on the charger’s screen: They were disconnected from the internet for some reason.
The good news though is that rather than this leave them deactivated, and leave us stranded in a desolate car park, it appears that when chargers can’t connect to their servers, they just pump out free electricity. So having connected the plug to the car, we were able to hit “start charge”, and get a free top us - saving us from paying the usual 30 pence per kilowatt hour. Brilliant!
After around 20 minutes wait - which was mostly spent eating a disappointing dinner at the service station McDonalds - we were back on the road and headed to Leicestershire.
Our plan was to charge overnight - meaning that when we showed up at around 12:30am my first words to my parents weren’t “hello, nice to see you” but “have you got an extension lead so we can plug in the car?”.
Luckily they did.
Day 2 - Leicestershire to the Yorkshire Dales
We arrived in Leicestershire with around a third of the battery left, and with eight hours charging overnight on a normal domestic socket we estimated that we’d start the day with enough charge to reach Nottingham, where we could park up at a city centre charger and get some breakfast.
Unfortunately, when we fired up the car in the morning, it appears that it hadn’t charged at all - or at least, had only imperceptibly. Charging the leaf on a normal domestic socket is supposed to take 21 hours, so we weren’t expecting it to be full - but just enough of a boost to reach our next destination.
Ah well - luckily we had enough juice left to make it to a charger on the M1, and Leicester Forest East services.
It was on the journey there that I first discovered what Nissan calls the “E-Pedal”. This makes the car almost insulting easy to drive: Reducing the two pedals of an automatic, to just the one. If you want to move forward - press the accelerator. If you want the car to stop… lift your foot off. Easy as that. I’m not sure how much a proper, Clarkson-loving petrol-head will be wincing at this - but I found it incredibly cool. It made the car feel like I was driving essentially a very expensive dodgem, in the best possible way.
We reached Leicester Forest East and plugged in. This time, the Ecotricity app was working so we’d have to pay for our electricity. Brilliantly, as the car charges the app will keep you up to date with a time estimate and details on how much money you’ve spent up until that point. So you can get on with all of the important service station activities, like playing a quick game of Time Crisis 2 in the knackered arcade area, without having to constantly check back.
It was at this point that I also gave in and admitted that I couldn’t for the life of me make the entertainment system work. It was humiliating, but I, a professional technology journalist was completely baffled. I’d tried hitting every button. I’d tried powering down and powering up again. It was just… dead, apart from a brief flicker of the Nissan logo when you boot the car up.
Worse still, because the car is so new, I couldn’t do the One Secret Trick every tech geek knows about how to make stuff works: I couldn’t Google the problem. Unlike every conceivable problem with your iPhone or your BT HomeHub, no one else has actually driven a 2018 Nissan Leaf yet, so there we no knowledge for me to steal and pass off as my own insight. So defeated, I phoned up my contact at Nissan who had got me the car and explained the problem - and he booked us into a garage further along the M1, in Derby.
Unfortunately, the sidetrack to Derby turned out to be fruitless: The Nissan engineers couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the car in the hour or so we spent there. But one theory was that it was a software issue: Much like how iOS11 was buggy as hell when it was first released, the new Leaf is so new that the entertainment system’s software will also need a patch or two before it is up to speed.
So while this was annoying, I don’t think this reflects on the quality of the car: It’s clearly something that can be patched out. And perhaps most importantly, the actual, umm, car functions of the car were still functioning perfectly. It just meant that we couldn’t have a podcast to listen to while we hummed down the motorway.
Anyway, this trip was about range anxiety, so having not charged since Leicester, we had now had another 90 miles to get to our next planned recharging spot - York.
The car reported a remaining range of about another 100 miles. So in theory, we could make it. But the question was: Did we dare? We already know blitzing down the motorway is inefficient. But we decided to go with it - the plan being to drive somewhat more sensibly.
Giving ProPilot Control
As luck would have it, it was at this point that we decided to try another of the car’s major selling points - what Nissan calls “ProPilot”. This is activated with a button press on the steering wheel, and makes driving almost insultingly straightforward.
Essentially, it is what the car industry calls “Level 2” autonomy functions, designed for motorway driving. Once activated, the car’s on-board cameras will spot the car ahead of you on the road, and will lock on to it - matching its speed, and maintaining a distance that you have specified. It will then spot the sides of the lane you’re driving in, and will keep you in lane too. So all you have to do is lift your foot from the e-pedal and gently rest your hands on the steering wheel and the car will essentially drive itself.
I know this isn’t unique to the Leaf - but it was the first time I’d experienced it, and it was pretty incredible. At first, it is perhaps a little eerie, and you have to take a small leap of faith to trust that the car is going to turn with the bends on the motorway. But within moments, it simply becomes second nature.
What’s particularly impressive is what happens when circumstances change quickly. For example, if a car pulls in front of you from another lane - in this case, the car will reduce speed once it has spotted it to create the same desired distance as before. At one point, someone merged unexpectedly quickly, and the car had to really put its virtual foot down on the breaks.
What this meant was that for long stretches of boring motorway driving, we barely had to do any actual driving at all. The system did have some limits though, as we’re not quite at full “level 5” autonomy yet. For example, if you want to be a courteous driver and let others merge, you have you manually press the brake to slow down, or manually move lane. Driverless cars in the future are going to need more manners.
And unsurprisingly, though ProPilot system will work on some non-motorways, it is not really designed for them. For example, I tried firing it up on the A64 heading from the M1 into York, and though the system was able to spot the car ahead and the sides of the road, it seemed less able to cope with the tighter bends on an A-road, and it would have sent me on to the hard shoulder were I not paying attention. The good news then is that you’ll quickly learn which situations ProPilot is appropriate (and amazing) in, and when to avoid it. And if you do mess up, the car still tracks when it is getting close to the edge of a lane, and will send a powerful rumble through the steering wheel to alert you to a potential danger.
Starting to worry a little bit now.
It was getting dusky by the time we rolled into York, because of the earlier delay at Derby. As we edged closer to the historic core of the city, on the outskirts of which was a rapid charger, the car flashed up an ominous “battery low” notification when we hit 15% - the estimated range was now something like 10 miles, leaving us little room for error.
Luckily though, we found the car park and the charger, where we made two savings of sorts: First off, the charge itself was free because the charger was on the “Polar” network. This meant that rather than needing my credit card details for a pay-as-you-go type situation, I just had to wave a contactless card that Nissan had supplied (if I’d been a real owner of the car, I’d have to pay Polar £7.95/month for access to the 1000+ charger network).
The other benefit was that despite this being a pay & display car park near the centre of town, because we were charging our electric vehicle, we didn’t have to pay for parking. So we were able to go and get some dinner while our car filled up.
Heading Into The Dales
The last of the day would perhaps take us on the most perilous part of the journey so far: We were going to leave the motorway network and major towns, and instead venture into the heart of the Yorkshire Dales.
The national park is definitely not natural terrain for an electric vehicle: The nearest chargers are some distance outside of the park, and the Dales are almost entirely hills. And this is bad, because more hills means using more precious electricity being used to move the Leaf.
But it was too late to change our hotel booking now, so as darkness fell, we ventured in.
The first thing we noticed was another nifty feature of the car: The headlines are not just automatic, but the full-beams will dim and un-dim automatically too. Clearly the same sensors that are spotting cars ahead are also being used to avoid dazzling them. Yet another previously manual task that can now automatically be taken care of.
As the car climbed the hills, we could see that snow was still lining the road. Cold isn’t good for energy efficiency either. But with about 130 miles on the range from charging in York, we finally made it to our hotel with maybe 40 miles to spare. Phew!
The hotel we were staying at was not only beautiful, but it was also special: We were at the Simonstone Hall Hotel, which is the place where in 2015 Jeremy Clarkson famously punched the Top Gear producer, which led to his sacking from the programme. And we had taken an electric car to get there.
Brilliantly, for some reason there’s even a plaque in the hotel bar commemorating this momentous event.
The hotel was also kind enough to let us plug in the Leaf. Because there was no proper EV charger, we had to use a normal domestic socket. But this shouldn’t be a problem, we thought: By the morning, that should at least give us enough juice to safely get out of the Dales and back to civilisation.
There was just one problem: As soon as the car was plugged in, the blue lights on top the dash briefly flickered before going out. No charge was coming through. Rather awkwardly, we’d blown the Victorian hotel’s ageing sockets. Mercifully they were very nice about it.
This was annoying - perhaps standard domestic sockets are not the most reliable way of running an electric car. Though remember, if you actually owned an electric car, you’d almost certainly get a proper higher voltage home charger installed, which would work fine. In fact, Nissan offers to install one for free for Leaf buyers.
There was, however, a more pressing immediate challenge the next morning: We only had around 40 miles of range left in the car, and we were 25.3 miles from the nearest rapid charger. Sure, that sounds like a lot of slack, but given the hills and the weather, it felt a little bit too precarious. We were definitely experiencing a little range anxiety.
Day 3 - Ribblehead Viaduct
So nervously we set off for Kirkby Lonsdale, eyes glued to the range calculator on the dashboard.
Our route took us past the place we had intended to visit all along: The Ribblehead Viaduct. Built in the 1870s, it is a 400m long Victorian engineering marvel - and formed an important part of the Settle-Carlisle railway And despite being located in the middle of nowhere, we had successfully brought an electric car to witness it. Cutting edge Victorian technology meets cutting edge 21st Century technology.
But we couldn’t stand back and admire it for too long. Though electric cars don’t consume much energy at all when stationary (unlike petrol cars), we thought it would be sensible to crack on.
We continued through the Yorkshire Dales, surrounded by rolling hills and lingering pockets of snow, nervously glancing down at the dash constantly. Eventually, and to our relief we reached Kirkby Lonsdale and it’s municipal car park that comes complete with a rapid charger. This one was operated yet another company - Genie - and relies not on a mobile app, but an inexplicably more precarious feeling mobile website. Worse still, unlike Ecotricity, it doesn’t charge you for energy used - but forces you to top-up in increments of £10, PAYG style. But hey, at least a full tank of electricity only costs around £8, so it wasn’t all bad.
While the car charged back up to full strength at this stop we went to investigate a bridge known as “Devil’s Bridge”, and got a snack at a delightful little cafe.
Our next destination was to test the car in an urban environment: We decided to take a trip into Liverpool. The city itself has a number of rapid chargers but the one we decided to try was right on the docks, near the Echo Arena.
A bridge on the way into Liverpool. We’re not sure what it all means either.
This was actually a little challenging to find - but after a couple of loops around the dock, we figured out the charger was in the underground car park for an apartment complex. To gain access, we had to go in and ask the receptionist for a keycard - which was handed over with no questions asked.
What was intensely frustrating about this though was that the charger had been installed in the most awkward possible location, in the corner of the car park.
This was an absolute nightmare to plug in.
In order to plug in, we needed to squeeze the Leaf next to an enormous Kia SUV in the space next to it. We only managed to do this because Liz is a much better driver than me - and was able to pull off the 50-million-point-turn manoeuvre required to squeeze in, while I stood outside the car and made nervous screeching noises whenever the Leaf got too close to other cars or concrete pillars. If I was on my own, this is the point when I would have given up and cried.
The mean streets of Liverpool.
Still, after a wander around Liverpool we headed to our final destination for the evening: The ultra-glamorous Holiday Inn in Crewe. Why? Because there’s a rapid charger right outside, of course.
This was probably the least eventful leg of the journey: We were more than able to do it in one charge, because it wasn’t massively far. And by this point we were pretty familiar with how the car works - so there wasn’t much left to surprise us. Though we did get go through the Kingsway Tunnel underneath the Mersey, which was pretty cool.
When we got to Crewe though, there was definitely a sense of deja vu as the charger presented similar problems to the one in Liverpool: It was stuffed in the corner of a very tight car park, and required a similarly awkward manueavor to shimmy the car into place so we could plug in.
Day 4 - Heading Home
And then the final day. We started off with a small jaunt into the countryside, to visit Hack Green Nuclear Bunker - a previously top secret underground facility that would have been one of the regional seats of government in the event of a nuclear war. It was super interesting, but perhaps more importantly, it meant we got to park the Leaf next to some scary-looking signage outside.
After, all we then had to do was get back to London. About 187 miles. All we had to do was take the M6, then the M1, then the M25. And in theory, we could do it in one charge. In practice, we decided to charge twice to play it safe - and to ensure that when the car was picked up, it wouldn’t be a 1.5 tonne paperweight.
What has the EU ever done for us?
Four days in, we were really getting a sense of what we were doing: Range anxiety had been conquered. We were confident that any service station would have the chargers required for a long journey, so we were able to simply glide down the motorway with ProPilot switched on, safe in the knowledge that we would be able to get home.
So… we did it! The 2018 Nissan Leaf had successfully got us to rural Yorkshire and back. It is a car that, on the strength of my four days with it, I would not hesitate to recommend - even if I did experience a bug with the entertainment system. In fact, when the Nissan guy came and collected it from me, I felt a twinge of sadness, so enjoyable was it to drive.
It’s smooth, its fun, it does a lot of the hard work for you during the boring bits - what more could you want? While I’ve also previously had a ride in a Tesla - an experience it was impossible not to be impressed with - what’s brilliant about the new Leaf is that it is a car that normal people (and people who made the mistake of trying to earn money in a career as a writer) might actually be able to afford.
The new Leaf will cost you around £30,000 depending on what extras and what government grants you take advantage of. But factor in the not needing to buy fuel and it quickly becomes transformatively affordable. Sure, arguably similar cars like the planet killing Ford Focus or VW Golf might be cheaper - but petrol is around £1.20 per litre. By contrast, our total fuel costs were around 30p/kwh. Going from London, to the Yorkshire Dales and back in a journey of around 655 miles cost us a grand total of… £33.34.
And having been on the journey, it’s safe to say that any latent fears I had about range have been extinguished.
As you can see above, the journey wasn’t without a few minor annoyances: My impression is that the rapid charger network is great on motorways where charging up is just as easy as pulling into a petrol station. But venture into a town, and depending on circumstances it can be slightly more challenging, But remember, what we were doing was a deliberately weird journey - if you actually owned an EV, this would not be your day-to-day, as you’d simply be able to drive home and charge overnight.
What the Range Anxiety Roadtrip proves, if anything, is that EVs are not just good for commuters - but are also able to handle rarer, longer journeys too, with only a little extra planning.
In fact, I’m more convinced than ever that range anxiety is basically a red herring now that EV range has reached what it has, and that the charger network has reached its current density.
In fact, only when looking back to write this piece I actually realised how bloody stupid I’d been in the past when worrying about this:
Above I spent ages describing the range anxiety while driving across the Dales… but what I never thought to check was something obvious: Were there ever actually any equivalent petrol stations? It turns out the answer is no:
Note the lack of petrol stations in the big green bit.
Similarly, if you’re running low on fuel on the motorway, the only option is to stop at a service station - all of which now have EV rapid chargers too.
In other words, I’m an idiot: Even if we were driving a gas-guzzling planet killer, the peril we experienced on this journey would be nearly identical, whether on a major road or in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales.
Before the trip I was an EV advocate in principle, despite having no hands-on experience: Now, having lived the EV life I’m convinced: Range Anxiety is bullshit.
James O'Malley is Interim Editor of Gizmodo UK and tweets as @Psythor.