Lessons Learned on the Road to the South of France
Being a brave sort, I decided that it would be an excellent idea to buy a full electric vehicle and drive it to the South of France, which is how I became the proud owner of an Audi e-tron 55 quattro. Normally, we drive down to Flayosc, a small village near Draguignan in the Var, annually. Over the years, we’ve used an Audi A6 (saloon and Avant) and most recently, a Porsche Macan. All were diesels, and all were capable of a range of between 800 and 1,000 km (depending on driving style) between fill-ups.
Practical Driving Range
Driving a full electric vehicle would be a different challenge. Although Audi claims a range of 391 km on a single charge (based on the WLTP range of 248 miles), other reports put the e-tron’s practical range at 360 km based on a usable 83.6 kWh battery. More importantly, the real highway range in summer is cited at 330 km based on an average consumption of 25.3 kWh/100 km. In much the same ballpark, Wired reports the range as 204 miles (326 km).
Given that you never want to exhaust the battery of an electric car and that you normally charge the battery to around 80% (the last 20% is the slowest part of charging), it seemed wise to plan on driving stages of around 200 km. This is acceptable, as we’d normally stop for a coffee and a rest every two hours, especially with a dog in the car. Finding the right places to stop and the the extra time needed to charge the car made the trip longer and more complicated (you always need a backup plan if the pumps at a chosen charging location aren’t working). This is now called “holiday planning.”
Setting out from Dublin, the car reported a range of 326 km. The first hitch was discovering that the advertised eCar charging point on the Irish Ferries ship MV Ulysses only supports the older charger used by Japanese cars like the Nissan Leaf and not the European standard Combo CCS (50 KW) or Type 2 (43 KW). The on-board electrician was apologetic and said that the ship is due to be upgraded. In any case, we didn’t need the charge as we’d planned to stop at other points in England.
The run from Holyhead through Wales and into England was uneventful and after 211 km we pulled into the motorway stop at Keele with 108 km range left. According to the car, the consumption was 25.3 KwH/100 km. We used an Ecotricity station (50 KW Combo CCS) to charge (Figure 1). Ecotricity limits their sessions to 45 minutes to make sure that people don’t occupy stations for too long (you can start another charging session afterwards if no one else is waiting) and the charge added 36.6 kWh to the battery.
First Big Point: Make sure that you sign up for charging providers on your route and have their RFID cards or smartphone apps to hand when you travel. You might need to sign up with several providers like Ecotricity and Chargemap to ensure you can use any charger you meet on a trip.
Problems with a Pump
The next point was Warwick, about 124 km from Keele. The Combo CCS station was occupied by a BMW i3, so we had to wait for 20 minutes. Unhappily, once we plugged in, the station refused to connect to the car. We called Ecotricity support, who restarted the station remotely, but nothing worked. There was nothing to do but to move on to the next charging point at Cherwell Valley, 38 km away. We arrived there with 90 km range remaining and the charge was uneventful and gave us enough power to easily reach our overnight stay in London. We charged the car overnight using a standard domestic plug (very slow), but it did add some useful range.
Overall, the run from Holyhead to London took about two hours longer than we’d expect in a diesel car. However, 45 minutes of this was taken up trying to deal with a recalcitrant pump. The total cost of the two charges was EUR23.66.
London to France
Next day, the run to the Eurotunnel (126 km) was marred by an accident on the M20 causing a 35-minute delay. This spoilt my plan to charge the car (and get breakfast) at the M20 Junction 11 service station before continuing to France. In any case, we got to the terminal and were directed to an earlier train (Eurotunnel were clearly coping with the effect of the M20 accident by pushing people onto trains as they arrived).
Consumption over all the runs in England and Wales averaged 25.8 kWh/100 km based on keeping to the 70-mph limit (113 km) on motorways. French autoroutes allow higher speeds, and this had a noticeable effect on pushing consumption towards 27 kWh/100 km when driving at the 130 kph limit.
Calais to Troyes: Two Charges, Some Experiences
We drove 460 km from Calais to Troyes and had two charging stops. The first was at Rely on the A26 autoroute. The charger allowed us to take as much time as we liked (it charges per minute), so we took a 66-minute charge from a Combo CCS to give us 270 km of range before setting out towards Reims. Some other charges we met further south restricted a charge to an hour’s duration, so it all depend on the network.
Here we took a small diversion to an Ionity charging station at Geuex on the A4 (Figure 2). Ionity is a network of high-speed chargers backed by Audi and other European manufacturers that promise charge output of between 150 KW and 350 KW, which clearly makes a huge difference to charging times and brings it close to the time you’d expect to spend to refuel a petrol or diesel car. The Ionity network is rolling out slowly across Europe, so the charging points are hard to find. I wanted to try one, so we took the detour.
If you get an Ionity charger that works, it delivers. Unfortunately, several the points that we looked at were out of operation for one reason or another and the first that we plugged into failed to charge the car. In fact, the charging cable also stubbornly refused to detach from the e-tron. A call to Ionity support had them reboot the station to see if that fixed the problem. It didn’t. The next advice was to wiggle the cable carefully from side to side. This worked and the cable parted company from the car.
Second Big Point: The status of charging pumps shown on online maps is unreliable. You won’t really know if a pump works until you try it.
Charging with Ionity is so much faster than anything else. In 30 minutes, the car lapped up 65 KW and got near full range. It would be great to have (working) Ionity chargers everywhere but that’s going to take some years. It would also be nice if the chargers were equipped with longer cables as it was sometimes hard to attach a cable to the side charging position of the e-tron. Some chargers are designed with the idea that all cars charge at the front or rear, so the car can drive or reverse into a slot and connect to a short cable. That theory falls apart with side-charging cars like the e-tron.
Fully charged by Ionity, there was no more drama en route to the overnight stop in Troyes.
The Importance of Finding a Charger
The next day, we reviewed the progress made by the car so far and decided to cancel our planned overnight stop south of Lyons in favor of a long day’s driving to get to our destination. Things started well with a stop at Fresnoy (on the A5 and just 18 km from the hotel). Charged with 285 km range showing, we set off the 208 km to the next stop at Beaune Tailly.
At the time of writing, the autoroute stop in Tailly was under reconstruction. It also includes a truck stop. I misread the directions at the entrance and we ended up in the truck stop with no way back to the area where the charging pump is located. This meant that we had to drive back onto the autoroute to the next exit, make a u-turn, and come back up as we hadn’t enough range to go to the next charger at Macon La Salle.
Third Big Point: Pay attention to where charging pumps are located in stops. Sometimes the pumps are clearly marked, sometimes they are not. If you drive past, you might not be able to get back to the pump. Online sites like chargemap.com help by showing locations, but they might not be accurate, so keep your eyes peeled.
This wasted time and range, and we were down to 50 km when we approached the autoroute stop at Beaune Merceuil (north), which also had a charging pump. We came off the autoroute, found the pump, and tried top charge. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the car and the pump refused to communicate despite the pump control software being rebooted twice by remote support. After wasting 45 minutes, we decided to go back to the Beaune Tailly stop. This time, we made no mistake, found the pump, and began charging with the e-tron busily issuing messages that we needed to “charge soon” as we were down to 35 km range.
Fourth Big Point: If you get into trouble and have to ring a support number, the people at the other end can probably do two things for you. They can reboot the control application that runs a recalcitrant pump to bring it back online. This might help, but in the two cases I went through this process, it didn’t. If you do ring a support number, expect to spend 10-30 minutes sorting things out, including time to reboot the pump. Second, they might be able to give you some advice about connecting a particular model of car. The e-tron, for instance, seems to be very sensitive to how the pump connector is inserted into the car. Sometimes the pump connected first time and sometimes it needed a couple of attempts.
Getting to the South
If your car runs down its battery, it’s going to take some time to get it to a point where it can cover any distance again. Prepare to spend some time investigating all the delights offered by autoroute stops. There usually aren’t too many to enjoy and the coffee available varies from awful to acceptable – the brews served by Paul’s (the sandwich shop) is probably best. After a long charge to get some decent range, we set off again for a brief run to Mâcon La Salle, where we stopped again to bring the battery to close to full charge.
The site had an Ionity crew working on the early phases of a new charging station. We saw another Ionity station at Montélimar, so the high-speed charging network is being built out slowly.
From Macon, we drove through some horrendous rush hour traffic around Lyons to Saint-Romain-en-Gal, where we stopped to charge, exercise the dog, and buy some groceries. We could have gone on to Pont-de-l’Isère, but decided that a better stop strategy was to charge at Montélimar and Trouves (Les Terrasses de Provence) en route to Draguignan. Other stations were available at Mornas and Lançon-Provence if chargers had not co-operated.
All of the chargers worked perfectly and we eventually made it to our destination after 842 km on the road from 8 hours and 39 minutes of driving, mostly along autoroute at speeds of up to 130 km/h with plenty of lane restrictions and other slowdowns. The car reported consumption for the day to the 26.3 kWh/100 km. We stopped to charge 7 times, one of which was an absolute failure (and wasted 30 minutes). Taking the 30-minute diversion up and down the A6 autoroute from and back to Beaune and the failed charge into account, we spent approximately 5.5 hours charging the car during the day.
Taking an Audi e-Tron to Provence
Overall, we drove 1,942 km to get from Dublin to our destination in Provence. Provided it had enough battery, the e-tron performed superbly on the road. It’s an easy car to drive and is very quiet and refined. Some of its driving aids need a little refinement, such as the habit of the adaptive cruise control to want to keep to a 30 km/h limit when leaving autoroute toll booths (no other car in France does). The traffic sign recognition system also made a few mistakes picking up 90 kph limits that only applied to cars towing caravans. It was a little disconcerting the first few times the car suddenly wanted to drop from 130 kph to 90 kph without warning, but maybe this is just a reminder that driving aids don’t remove the responsibility of the driver to drive.
As to cost, I paid EUR23.66 in the U.K. and zero (so far) for the French trip because I used Audi’s offer to provide an RFID charging card for a year for every new e-tron. I might have to pay EUR8 for the Ionity charge, so that’s EUR31.66. Chargemap charges 0.2379 cents per KW for autoroute stations (off the autoroute, the charge might be a little cheaper at some stations – or even free), so an average 43 KW charge costs EUR10.23. We charged eight times as we drove through France, that’s EUR81.84. 135 litres of diesel might have been consumed (at 7l/100 km) by my Porsche Macan, so that would have been approximately EUR203 to fill based on a mix of autoroute and non-autoroute filling stations. On this evidence, electric cars are definitely cheaper to run, even on long-haul trips.
You can certainly cover a lot of ground with an e-tron in a day. Being forced to spend an hour or so at each charging point is OK if you build the time into the day and know what you’re going to do with it (see coffee comment above). The introduction of more Ionity high-speed chargers across Europe will make a huge difference by cutting charging times by two-thirds (50 KW versus 150 KW technology) with the promise of doing even better in the future with 350 KW chargers. Of course, a charger is useless if it doesn’t charge and the control software running on the pumps does seem a little fragile based on our experience (1 fail in the U.K., two in France, including an Ionity pump). Failing to charge when your car is really low on battery is not a nice experience and takes away from the EV experience. My expectation is that the charging network will become more robust and widespread. If it doesn’t, driving an EV like the e-tron will always have a certain risk.