A 1609 km endurance challenge in a Kia EV6
Whatever Edison can do, we can try and do better...
One hundred and eleven years ago, electric cars were killing it.
They were more numerous in big cities like London and New York than cars with pistons. In fact, electric power had been quite the thing since the late 1800s: quiet, without the noxious fumes of internal combustion or the horse’s tendency to randomly defecate on city streets, battery powered carriages were perfectly suited to urban work. But they suffered from the same malaise that we still fixate upon today: they lacked range, were awkward to charge, and cost more than contemporary, mass produced cars with engines. Some people saw the potential, mind. Kept the faith, felt the literal electric thrill of motivated electrons. And one in particular did more than most, a certain Thomas Alva Edison.
Now Thomas Edison, famous inventor, technological revolutionary and general genius, was keen on two things; the many and varied ways to wrangle electricity, and hard work. Actually, make that three – he was also keen on ‘Vin Mariani’, Bordeaux wine treated with coca leaves, which also might explain his expanded capacity for creative thinking and chronic insomnia. But in-between being slightly fizzy on cocaine-laced booze, he also managed to invent the modern lightbulb, the phonograph and the basics of the motion picture industry, as well as a myriad of other widgets that we take for granted today, including various types of battery. And it’s Edison’s love of batteries that manifests as particularly relevant to our story.
It’s not hard to hold Edison up as a pioneer; for a short time he employed a certain Nikola Tesla (yep, that one), a relationship that crumbled and ended up in the ‘war of the currents’ in which the two of them fought to establish what flavour of electricity (AC for Edison, DC for Tesla) would power the world. But it was Edison’s involvement in developing lighter, more efficient rechargeable batteries that gives him special standing when it comes to our modern automotive landscape. Specifically where we find ourselves in 2021.
It goes a little something like this. Huge swathes of industrial progress can be attributed to Edison’s apparent stubbornness. He wasn’t convinced by internal combustion despite a long-standing industrial friendship with a certain Henry Ford, with whom he worked to produce an electric starter for Ford’s Model T – which would ironically end up helping kill off the electric car by removing the standard, awkward hand crank. And resolute in his obstinacy, in 1898 he invented the more efficient alkaline storage battery (known back then as an ‘accumulator’), and was convinced that it could revolutionise the electric car industry. By 1909, the Edison Electric Company was the primary producer of batteries for everything from submarines to phonographs, railways and mines, as well as S.R Bailey and Company – producer of the Bailey Electric Phaeton, an electric car with a range of 100 miles. Now, considering that most electric cars at the time had a range of 20-ish, this was quite some claim, and Edison wanted to prove it. And so, on 17 September 1910, he set out to drive an electric car 1,000 miles during an auto endurance competition to prove the worth of battery power.
This was not, it has to be said, the undertaking of a moment. The road tour started from the Touring Club of America on Broadway and 76th Street, New York, and pottered around the countryside before a final climb up Mount Washington in New Hampshire before returning home. The rudimentary Phaeton would be recharged via waterwheels and coal-fired stations along the route, equipped with a heady two and a half horsepower to drag the one-tonne Bailey through whatever the geography had to offer. They had to plan their recharging and manage their range conservatively.
Something that I’m very much aware of, and the reason I’m standing on the top of the Spittal of Glenshee in Scotland in the company of an electric car with not very much range left, and no charge point within easy reach. Because here comes the blindly simple idea: repeat Edison’s 1,000-mile odyssey in a modern electric car, to see how far we’ve come. To see whether Edison was right over a century ago, and we’ve all wandered down a fun but doomed branch of personal transportation for more than a hundred years. A quick search and it appeared that the Glenmorangie Distillery sits 500.1 km fom my front door, a fitting yet utterly spurious tribute to Edison’s alcohol enthusiasm. The Cairngorms would sub in for Mount Washington, the A9 for the roads of New Hampshire. Simple.
Photography: John Wycherley
And yes, the want for watts is entirely my fault. No matter how modern the electricity or pure the petrol, make use of the available performance and it takes more of it. And I have been making enthusiastic use of this Kia EV6, because... well, because it’s really good. This car makes sense for this. The EV6 is the newest of the new breed of electric cars in 2021, a scientific bookend to the Bailey, and is equipped with 800V charging, 300+miles of range and 321bhp. And yet, unlike Edison’s phaeton, the EV6 is actually really good fun to drive, despite being twice the weight. Heavy, yes. Different, absolutely. But riding the roller coaster of a road that connects this part of the Cairngorms is more fun than you can imagine. And for some reason, I don’t miss the noise, because the views are loud enough. This isn’t the usual territory of the electric car, obviously – the opposite of the urban, the modern. A feisty, uncompromising scene that’s made up of sharp landscape and soft skies, the horizon standing guard between the two. And the road stretches one long, crooked finger from one to the other. A driver’s road. In what shouldn’t really be a driver’s car.
It started well. A full charge from home was convenient, and the first 160km on the A1 smoothed out the Kia’s gentle hum and easy gait. A stop at Wetherby services brought a useful top up and morning coffee – a stop no longer than the 20 minutes I might usually manage. On to Gretna Green and some 350kW chargers that saw the EV6 throwing electricity into its batteries at a rate of 50 miles every five minutes. The same at the next charger in Perth, and a scene repeated at another late night services, albeit on a slower 50kW charger, just to see what would happen. OK, so the chargers weren’t always located in the most convenient of places (no weather protection and nowhere to hang out but the car itself, light possibility of mugging and/or having to chat to other enthusiastic EV-ers), but if the future of long distance EV driving is to stop for 15–20 minutes every two and a half hours, then it’s not really much of a bind. This, I thought, is going to prove Edison’s theory. Electric cars are the future.
A point cemented by the EV6 itself, repeatedly. With 800V charging, the EV6 can cope with higher voltages and lower current, which in itself prevents rapid DC charging running too hot. Connecting cables can be thinner, gaining a weight advantage, and even though the system isn’t in itself a huge revolution (decent battery controls can charge more common 400V systems really very efficiently), stick an 800V car on the biggest rapid charger you can find, and it’ll suck up electricity like a supercharged Henry Hoover without exploding batteries. There’s also reams of tech in the car that allows you to make the most of your range, and do so in that typical bubble of electric zen that makes cruising in an EV so appealing.
But more than that, the EV6 seems quite keen when the roads get interesting. With four-wheel drive and a battery mounted low in the chassis, it’s got good grip and decent communication. You can feel the potential. The front end tugs itself around when you breach the safe limits of traction, feeling not unlike a mildly obese Nissan GT-R. Really. In fact, it felt safe and secure and surprisingly entertaining on these roiling, pitching, unsighted Scottish military roads. Not perfect; if you lift mid-corner or otherwise interrupt the cornering stance, you feel the weight. Similarly, if you get too cocky on the braking, you are faced with immutable mass/speed equations which cause unwanted puckering. Mainly because even a slight adventure onto the margins would be... quite bad.
But saying that, rolling out into the Scottish countryside on a crisp autumnal day in a car that’s even mildly fun is something to savour. Which I did, until I realised that there was still a decent chunk of driving to do. The EV6 soothed away those last hours, and we stopped to charge again at a truck stop after consulting my wealth of charging apps. Up the next day, a quick visit to the distillery in Tain, more pictures and touring, with range to spare. Really, it couldn’t have been easier.
Obviously, it was at this point everything fell apart.
It’s the feeling of relief that kills you. Knowing that the hotel we had booked for the second night had multiple chargers on site, as soon as we got through the entrance, I began to shut down. And then it all went a bit wonky. To cut a long story and even longer journey short, the hotel chargers wouldn’t talk to the car. With more pictures to shoot the next morning, and no charging on the Spittal of Glenshee, we went into Pitlochry to find a charger. And there were many, of various wattages. Unfortunately, the only one (of eight) working, was occupied. So we left the car hooked up to another charger in another location by the station two miles away from the hotel – a slow charger. We’d have to come and get it the next morning.
The next day we shot from dawn, and then worked our way back down south. A topping-off charge in Nairn worked, but the screen on the charger was so faded I could only tell that the car was charging was from the car itself. Perth, fine. Gretna Green – excellent place that it was on the way up – was full, with several cars waiting. The less than ideal game of ‘how long will this take?’ forced us on to Todhills Southbound services, where the charger was broken and forlorn. Now scraping the electrons from the bottom of our battery barrel, we had to drive into nearby Penrith, taking another hour in traffic. A 50kWh charger was identified at Booths supermarket, occupied by two EVs that apparently needed to charge to the full one hundred point zero per cent. And here’s where it got weird – suddenly, the car park was full of electric cars looking hungry. As I backed the EV6 into the charging space – having waited 30 minutes – half a dozen cars arrived. And parked facing me. One by one, each driver wandered around making sure that everyone knew their place in the queue. And then sat in their cars... and waited. While I sat in my car... and waited. Now, the EV6 will suck up electricity perfectly happily, but on a relatively small 50kW charger, it still takes a bit. And I needed 80 per cent charge or more to make it to the next stop. So I sat and felt the eyes of power hungry Zoes watching my every move, tracking me like meerkats every time I twitched. Something I doubt Thomas Edison had to put up with.
It was at this point I started doing some totting up. On the journey north, I reckon EV touring only cost us about 90 minutes over what I would have achieved in a car with an engine, and you could easily argue that the extra rest time was entirely appropriate for a 10 hour trip. On the way back down – with an extra stop at Markham Moor – we added about another five hours. Add to that the chronic stress of making sure you’ve got enough range to make it to Plan B charging, and the lottery of queueing at charge points, and it made the whole experience seem extremely fragile. A bad day and bad timing? Possibly. Could I have done more planning, had more confidence in the car’s range? Quite probably. But it was what it was.
The issue is that we’re walking a fine line with the infrastructure. People without home charging will rely on public chargers, and those doing longer distances need to know that when they turn up to a charger, it will work, at a rate that’s convenient – and the cars need to be able to take advantage of bigger rapid chargers by having the appropriate onboard facility. We discovered that Edison was entirely right about electric cars; they work. But for the 85 per cent of the time when everything goes smoothly, it’s the 15 per cent that it doesn’t that colours your whole perception of electric cars’ feasibility, and triggers anxiety. I charge mostly at home, and plan for longer trips. It’s no problem. But when it goes wrong, it’s worrying.
Edison completed his 1609km miles, proving that an electric car could compete with the ICE cars of the day. We could have easily managed the same distance in a couple of days, and in considerably more comfort. But Edison’s electric dream was not to be – by 1915 Bailey and Edison had ended production of their electric phaeton, and Edison’s head was turned elsewhere. The last electric cars limped along until about 1921, Ford’s Model T having brought cheap ICE cars to the masses and with that, the death knell of electric motivation.
Which leaves us with work to do. It’s the old refrain; electric cars aren’t coming, they’re already here. Government mandates will push us this way, whether we like it or not, and cars such as Kia’s EV6 are the ones we should look to as our standard – it’s a new breed of EV. But the future isn’t the doom and gloom that petrolheads might think. No, they don’t suit absolutely everyone for all use cases, but most people could cope with an EV – especially if they have home charging. EVs have the range and the charging capability. They’re also getting there with the emotional side of things – there will be electric cars that are fun to drive without the usual caveats. Even the list price is falling; with the upfront cost of batteries dropping per kWh at an unprecedented rate, we’ll see more affordable EVs soon enough.
And that’s without the improvements in battery tech that Edison was at the forefront of back in the day. A trip like this, despite the travails, makes me even more optimistic. Use an EV for the boring stuff, and keep the genuinely interesting fossil fuelled cars on the road. As EVs progress, we’ll get the charging infrastructure we deserve, and the early adoption growing pains will subside. We’ll get there. Which means that after 110 years, Edison’s dream of an electric future will, at least in part, become the present.