Sunday, April 16, 2017

Mission: Myrtle Beach

Let's talk about the trip stats before we get into the detail. 427.1 miles door-to-door from my home to Myrtle Beach and back. Let it be known that I am crazy, the good kind of crazy. The kind of crazy that looks at a hypothetical situation and says, "Let's try!"

I don't remember who, but a member of a group of friends that I attend an annual conference in Myrtle Beach told me it was a shame my little Smart couldn't make it. I've had Myrtle Beach on my radar ever since, and it happens that I had a good push to do it: a neighbor from our last neighborhood bought a Nissan LEAF and was asking about taking it to Greenville (piece of cake) and Wilmington. We looked on Plugshare and discovered that there were CHAdeMO DC Chargers in Wilmington, but the city was 20 miles outside the EPA-rated range of 109 miles on the LEAF. There were two Level 2 charging opportunities: Campbell University and Nissan of Clinton. Because I love my dear neighbor, and because Wilmington is a mere 65-miles from the Tanger Outlet in North Myrtle Beach, I decided to put America's Shortest Range EV* currently for sale to the test. If I could make it in the Smart, ANY EV could make the drive.

I really pulled the stops out for this trip. I left at 8pm from my home in Raleigh and stopped first at Campbell University for a quick top up. I was driving lightly and averaging 3.9mi/kWh, having used only 42% of the battery to travel 35.2 miles. I started watching the movie Run Lola Run and recharged to 70% before departed for Nissan of Clinton -- 40 miles away. I arrived with around 15% battery left, and having called the dealer earlier in the week to confirm the charger was usable after hours, plugged in. Now, it's a little after midnight, and there isn't much here except a 24-hour McDonalds. I decided that I would sleep in the Smart. You read that right: I, a 6'3" well over 250-lb adult male intended to sleep inside a car that is hardly 8 feet long.

It was much easier than I expected it to be. The Smart features a flip-forward passenger seat to allow longer boxes to be carried home. I folded the seat flat and put one leg between the gear selector and the head rest, and the other leg between the door and the other side of the head rest. Much to my own amazement, when I leaned back, I had about a half-inch of room from the top of my head to the tailgate. Add in several (like 6) pillows, and you've got a decent make-shift tent for the night. However, you run into the problem of light pollution keeping you awake. Never fear! I already own a "popcorn showercap" (as my spouse calls it), a half-car cover designed to keep the interior cool on sunny days when the top is down. Used in just the right way, it blocks out all the offending light so that you can sleep.

I made my passenger seat bed and laid back. It wasn't as comfortable as I'd remembered earlier in the day, so I found a way to get into the fetal position, with most of my body in the trunk behind the drivers seat (which I also leaned forward some so I could snuggle a pillow with both arms). As I lay here, thinking about how utterly insane I must be, it started to rain. I love the sound of rain on a convertible roof, hearing it on the cover made it sound like rain hitting a tent. I immediately had wonderful nostalgic memories of camping with my family as a child, and soon fell asleep. However about an hour later I woke up because the car had become quite stuffy, so I switched on the ignition and turned the fan on. I drifted back off to sleep. Somewhere around 5:30 I woke up and couldn't get back to sleep. I generally run on a mere 6 hours of sleep, and 5 hours was about 90% of my norm, so I decided to get "up" and sit in the driver seat till the car reached 100% charge. Apparently my driving had the battery management module all kinds of confused, because it went to 100% then 99% then 100% then 99% a few times. Finally I decided when the guess-o-meter said I had 78 miles of range (we only needed to traverse 61), I'm going to go. So I left, and arrived in Wilmington around 6:38am.

I parked in the downtown parking deck, right on the water front. The first hour of parking is free, then it's $1/hr there after until you reach $8 which is the daily maximum. I plugged into one of the two Eaton chargers, and decided to wander around and take a lot of photos. It was going to be an hour and a half before any of the breakfast places opened up, so I had ample opportunity to find all the usual tourist sights to snap without any interruption from other people. I truly love the 5-7am time space, because the world is just so peaceful. Anyway, once I'd gotten my photos I decided maybe I should get some cash because there were ATMs on just about every corner. Small downtowns don't always take plastic, and I wanted to be prepared. However, I wasn't up for a $3 transaction fee, so I wandered two miles to the nearest CashPoints ATM to withdraw my money without a fee. The walk was through a rough part of town, so I called a Lyft to get me back downtown. I spent $8 (with tip) on a car ride to avoid a $3 fee, lesson learned. Once back downtown I ate at The Dixie Grill, a truly wonderful little spot. They were very friendly to the stranger with a laptop (I was teleworking while charging), and never pressured me to give up my table even after my meal was complete. A little over an hour after I sat down and ate, I used their restroom and went back to the car. I tried to catch a quick nap, but it wasn't happening, mostly because I needed to use the bathroom. I walked all around the downtown looking for the public restrooms I'd seen just two and a half hours earlier, and finally found them -- literally they were on the other side of the wall to which my car was charging.

I sat in the car until it hit 99% and unplugged - destination Myrtle Beach. It's 65 miles, well within my car's ability, and the route I took only had a small stretch that was 65MPH. I didn't get the Low Battery warning until I was exiting off the highway for the Tanger Outlet (HWY 17 location, since there are TWO Tangers in Myrtle Beach for some reason). I had to make a U-Turn since you can't make a left right off the exit anymore into the mall. I slowly crawled my way around to the Car Chargers, to find one of them (the Handicap/EV space) ICEd by a handicap marked car, and another space ICEd by a Dodge Journey. Luckily, the other two EV spaces were wide open, so I pulled in and plugged up. The car reported a 5.5-hour-to-full charge time, but I believe it's being pessimistic. A young family were walking past as I plugged in and the dad pointed my car out to his daughter. I piped up and told him I'd driven it from Raleigh, to which he and his wife were really impressed. He said he wished he saw more of them on the road, and I said I agree. The whole purpose of this trip was to prove that the lowest-range car in America* most certainly could be used, if planned accordingly, to take a long weekend in Wilmington or Myrtle Beach.

While I was at the Tanger, I let their management know about the ICE-ing issue, where a non-plugin car parks in the plugin charging space, and how the Mebane, NC location addressed it. Their management was very receptive to the idea, and said they'd reach out to the manager of the Mebane location for more information. I decided that since I was at a mall, I should be a patron, and I bought a new $38 outfit. After a few hours of charging, with two more to go before I could get back to Wilmington, I remembered that I passed by the home of another Smart electric drive owner. Having just exchanged emails with Len about the annual battery service, I emailed him to let him know I was in the area.

Enthusiastically, as only EV owners could, Len invited me over for a slow charge and tea. I asked if he happened to have a NEMA 240-volt outlet in his garage, and being the good car guy he is, he had one for his air compressor. Off to Ocean Isle I went, arriving to his private community in about 40 minutes. I needed another 22 miles to get back to Wilmington for the night, about an hour and a half's worth of charging. The time flies when you're chatting with a car geek! I learned Len has owned Mercedes cars for quite a while, and has a number of other MB two-seaters as well! He and his wife are slowly pairing down to just their Smart electric and their 99 Turbodiesel E class. I truly enjoyed our chat, mostly about cars, but also about energy, art, and where we grew up. This was a very unexpected and special treat for me. Len was my inspiration to try and take my car to the coast, because he had to get his car to the Cary Smart Center for its annual battery health check.

After leaving Len's beautiful home, I got back to Wilmington and met up with my buddy William at the Whole Foods. I plugged into the GE Wattstation, and we left to get dinner at Flaming Amy's. My phone kept buzzing saying the car was charging and not charging. I have no idea if someone was messing with the plug, or if the charger was just having issues (I don't have the best luck with the GE Wattstation units), so we moved the car to a ChargePoint charger at the local BMW dealer. We left it for a full charge -- not to be done until nearly 3am due to the severely low state of charge -- and headed to his home for the night. To say I crashed out hard puts it mildly, I really needed the 5.5 hours of sleep I got. Like a true gentleman, at 4am he got up to take me to my car. I cannot thank him enough for his generosity, and for playing Lyft when there were no Lyft (or Uber) drivers available. After a hug goodbye, I unplugged my car and headed back North on NC421 towards Clinton's Nissan dealership. I arrived with 8% charge remaining, due to terrain, elevation, and chilly weather. I plugged in and walked over to the McDonalds for something to eat and to eavesdrop on the locals conversations. At 5:30am, you get the good town gossip from the hard working citizens!

I moseyed back over to my car and finished watching Run Lola Run, when Phillip arrived to open up the dealership. He was a really nice fellow, and he knew a thing or two about African Grey parrots (my front plate says 'Life is Greyt,' a play on words nod to my parrots). We chatted quite a bit, and he said I was welcome to use the charger as long as I needed. When they opened up officially, I went in to ask about buying a hat as a token of thanks. They gave it to me, on the house, they were happy to see someone use the charger and to prove that the technology was ready for everyday use. I met the owner, who told me they are installing a CHAdeMO Fast Charge unit this year, and they he has high expectations that the new 2018 200-mile car will sell well in his rural community. His wife had one, and loved it, except she would get nervous going to Benson if there was a headwind. He had several in his rental fleet and that convinced people, he said they all came back talking about what a rocketship the car was. He's a very smart man to put the cars in peoples hands as a loaner while their car is in for service, a technique I wish others did. I told him about the $10,000 Plug-in NC Nissan Rebate going on, and he was very intrigued since he hadn't heard about it before. He was really impressed with my Myrtle Beach trip and told me that he hoped I'd stop back by, and that I was welcome to charge whenever I needed. I truly love the sense of community that these car inspires.

After topping up, I headed back to Campbell University. I had a scheduled work appointment to attend to at 11am, so I figured this was a good place to camp out for an early lunch and 3-hour charge. I popped into the Subway and ordered some food, sat down and started working on emails and putting together this post. Around two hours in, after having completed all the scheduled work tasks I had, I called a friend of mine in Fuquay-Varina to see if she was home. Amanda was home, and she had some items for me from her recent IKEA trip. So I decided to top off my charge on Level 1 (standard house outlet) at her house, and help her make a vinegar-baking soda volcano with her 6-year old daughter.

I wound by way from Campbell to Angier to Fuquay, and I came across a little gem: a Th!nk City Car parked in a Fuquay resident's yard. The car looks like it's being used, which is really cool. It's basically the front wheel drive version of my Smart car! I arrived at Amanda's and plugged in, checked into work for a bit, and then helped to make science more fun for her daughter. We also used her VW TDI (not a scandal model, a much older one) to go and get lunch at the a deli down the road, and her daughter was very interested in sitting in my "toy car." After about two hours, I'd charged just enough to get home, so I hugged everyone and set out on the final leg of my journey. I took 401 to McDowell St to Atlantic Ave. I pulled into my driveway with around 3% battery power, and promised my little car it could sit for a good while on it's home charger before I asked it to do anything else.

All said and done, had I done this trip in a 2017 Smart Electric Drive, I'd have spent half the time charging. The hour in Campbell would have given me more than 50% charge, and I could have cut down my time at Nissan of Clinton to a max of 2 hours. I think this would make the trip reasonable for more people, because it's a little longer than a sit-down meal would take start to finish. My 4-hour stops work if you've never been to the destination before. Looking at Wilmington as an example, you could get in a tour or two of the city along with a meal before you're ready to get to Myrtle Beach. Many hotels in Myrtle now have chargers, so you could get to your hotel and plug in for the night (and rent a bike, or walk, around the Myrtle strip).

This trip was a test. I have wanted to drive my little Smart to the Tail of the Dragon (US129 along the NC/TN boarder), and I now know I have the patience and craziness needed to do a 370-mile one-way drive. When I make that trip, you can bet you'll read about it on here. If you'd like to see my pictures from the trip, click here.

*The Mitsubishi i-MiEV is technically the loss leader for range, with an EPA rated 62 miles per charge. However, Mitsubishi hasn't really imported any of them since mid-2016 (as 2017 models), and having driven one with it's aggressive regenerative braking, I have no doubt that it would make this journey without fail. In fact, since all the 2014-on models have CHAdeMO standard, it would be even faster to reach Myrtle Beach in a race with the Smart.

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