What It’s Like to Drive an EV for the First Time

By Jeff Lenard   read

From personal experience, there are ample opportunities to better educate drivers on the basics of operating an electric vehicle.

July 28, 2023

Tesla-charging_lg.jpgAs electric vehicles become more mainstream, they also are becoming more common for car rentals—and they are affordably priced. So, for a recent trip to Orlando, I thought this was my chance to see what the excitement of driving an EV was all about, especially with the Tesla. I booked it and instantly felt like I was a cool kid, and I told my kids, who briefly thought I was cool as well.

I own a hybrid—the acceleration and quietness of an EV were not new to me. I didn’t think I would have range anxiety, a common concern of EV drivers, since I would be driving about 100 miles less than the expected range of the vehicle.

A few days before my trip, the rental agency sent me helpful links to videos showing me how the Tesla operated differently than a standard ICE vehicle. Then came the big day. After checking in, the agent added one final line that changed everything: “You have to bring the car back with at least a 70% charge.”

Suddenly, I understood the full meaning of range anxiety. There was no question I would have to charge at least once, especially since the car had an 88% charge to begin with. That one phrase changed everything into one, never-ending math problem over the next 48 hours.

I’ll worry about that tomorrow, I thought. Let’s hit the road. I knew how to open the car door thanks to the video I dutifully watched, but then things got different. There was something resembling a key, and shifting into gear was like using a turn signal, but on the opposite side of the wheel.  

Then there’s the dashboard—as in a lack of.  Everything is housed on a touchscreen, which looked like a giant tablet. I figured out how to listen to my favorite radio station, but struggling with the AC is problematic when it’s 94 degrees. At least I figured out the windows.

I arrived at my hotel and followed the instructions: leave the car and it will shut off and lock. Is that possible? It seemed to work after I exited and closed the car door.

But the biggest thing I paid a whole lot of attention to was the charging level, which dropped to about 80% by the time I parked—about 23 miles from the airport.

The next day I felt more comfortable with the Tesla. No problems getting it in gear, and I got the AC to work, even though the temperature was underwhelming at 66 degrees. The touchscreen took away all the excitement of turning up a song I liked. Can we all agree it’s easier to turn a knob than tap a touchscreen, assuming you can easily find where to tap? Highly unsatisfying.

Following that excursion, I was down to 59% and played out the math. I burned 29% from 88%, and the rest of my driving would be two trips identical to what I just took. If I charged now and did the same amount of driving, I could return the car at 71%. That’s what the math said.

Pro tip from a friend: If you have a Tesla, type “Tesla Charger” into the navigation and pick the one you want to go to. (Even better, find a faster Tesla Supercharge.) The car battery begins to prepare for the charge, which can make the charge faster.

I was in luck—a Supercharger was two miles away in a Target parking lot. There were about 20 spots, and a handful didn’t have random, unloved shopping carts blocking them. Then came more EV learnings. Where’s the charging port? Thankfully, I didn’t rip off the license plate looking for it a la Clark Griswold. I saw someone else who was charging and noticed it on the left side, almost connected to the brake light.

I grabbed the charging hose and nozzle to plug in—and came up a good 2 feet short. The hoses—technically called connectors—are nowhere near as long as the fueling hoses. I did the walk of shame to start the car, back up two feet and was still short. More shame and a third try, which was the charm.

Finally close enough, I plugged in and got my free juice. It’s free, right? There were no signs that said how much a charge would cost. I sat inside the car and waited…100% in 30 minutes. A perfect time to catch up on e-mails and watch the clouds begin to darken and boil.

You know how convenience stores have nice canopies to protect customers while fueling? Not so at chargers. The car quickly reached 80% but took considerably longer to hit 95%, and agonizingly slow to reach that last few percent. And I needed every percent—remember, my math said I had 1% to spare to bring it in at 70%.

Just as I am about to unplug the connector, a gust of wind grabbed an unloved shopping cart and hurtled it forward. And then the hail started. And torrential rains. How do you unplug this thing? Will I get electrocuted in the downpour? I’m getting soaked and the nozzle finally releases. Did I hit some special point on the nozzle or was I too weak to pull it out initially?

The rest of the drive is more math. I’d pass the airport on my ride back to the hotel, so I could check how much charge I’d burn and use that to benchmark whether I’d have enough juice. Success! I arrived at the hotel at 82%, and figured I used 7% from the airport to hotel, but let’s call it 8% to be safe. That’s comfortably above 70%. Math rules!

The next day I looked at the one number I care about, which said 77%. Somehow, overnight the vehicle lost 5% of its charge. Did I not turn it off? Or does it naturally discharge? It didn’t matter, I was going to have to charge—again—before I returned the car. The good news was that the hotel had EV chargers. The bad news: only one Tesla charger, and it was in use, with the user nowhere to be found.

I typed “Tesla Supercharger” into the navigation and found one 3 minutes away. After charging, the Tesla predicted how much charge the car would have when I reached my destination: I would arrive at the airport with a 72% charge.

For the next 25 miles I stared at that charge number almost as much as I watched the road. Then my expected charge at arrival dropped to 71%. More anxiety. I’m in the mistake-free zone unless I want to risk charging again. Thankfully, I arrived at a triumphant 71%. The agent scrawls “71%” on the windshield and I stand tall waking away.

Here’s what I learned: First, range anxiety is real. Second, Teslas are impressive, but their cool features need to be communicated a little better. You know how you have to ask your kids how do use some feature on your iPhone? That’s like Teslas, except you’re driving. Third, traditional fueling stations—like convenience stores—can play a significant role in making EV charging work. They are a familiar constant when things feel unfamiliar.

Will I rent an EV again? It depends on the price and how much I want to constantly do math.

Jeff Lenard actually likes math. He graduated with a B.S. in engineering, but too much problem solving will make anyone’s head hurt.