Shaking like a Leaf (I): From dawn till dusk

This blog post is part of a series about my road trip around South/East Australia in an electric vehicle. Read other posts using the same tag.

Day 1: Brisbane to Newcastle via Pacific Highway

The first day involved travelling from Brisbane to Newcastle, which is around 780km. This was going to be longest I would be driving in a single day – partly because I had planned the road trip a little late and needed to fit around some schedules to catch up with people along the way. I probably would have stopped to stay in places like Coffs Harbour along the way if I hadn’t stuffed up the timing of the initial part of the trip.

A screenshot of the A Better Route Planner app, with a route marked between Brisbane and Newcastle, with multiple pins indicating locations for electric vehicle charging.
ABRP in action.

For general planning I used the “A Better Route Planner” app (ABRP) which suggested that it would take around 12 hours or so all up to cover the distance with some of the stopovers included. This app automatically routes travel to include charging stations, adds charge time to the total trip time, and you can even customise things like the remaining level of charge you want when arriving, and so on. I’ll pop comments about ABRP throughout this series, but overall I have found it pretty good and mostly lined up with my manual planning before I discovered the app, though its UI has quite a few quirks which can be frustrating at times.

For this leg I gave myself another 2 hours above the estimate, and planned for 14 hours in total with around 9 hours on the road. That would mean I would start at 3am AEST and arrive around 6pm AEDT.1 An early start, but not something I haven’t done before in previous travels.

I also felt I needed a little bit of Christmas in the car. So why not a cat with antlers on the passenger seat to keep me company?

A picture of the passenger seat in a car, with the head rest attached shaped as a cat's head, and Christmas-themed antlers inserted.
I’m not as creepy as this photo makes me look にゃ〜

So off I went, at a quarter past three2 on a cloudy night. I doubt the temperature was actually 27 degrees as it shows on the dash,3 but Queensland nights can get quite warm and humid at times!

A photo of the digital dash display inside the car. The clock reads 3:13. The temperature reading is 27 degrees Celcius. The battery temperature gauge sits approximately at the halfway point. The battery gauge indicates 100% charge, and an estimated range of 245 kilometres. The odometer reads 46757 kilometres.
Topped up to 100%, packed and ready to go at 3am in the morning!

First stop was Ballina – both for the car and I needed a charge after 2 hours driving and watching a magnificient sunrise over a foggy highway. McDonalds was located right next to the chargers, and nothing else was open, so that would have to do. 45 minutes, a meal, and a stretch of the legs later, the charger got me from 15% to 90%.

Next charger to get to was located at a small Shell petrol station in Tyndale, just off the Pacific Highway. Two beefy 350kW chargers on the Evie network – though my car only does a max of 50kW, and only when conditions are right. The site is notorious for having poor mobile reception: using the mobile app to start the charge would have been an exercise in frustration, but I had an RFID card on hand, so all it took was a swipe to get it going.

Speaking of RFID card – even if you’re an infrequent user of chargers, I would recommend you get one. You can use the same card on multiple charging networks4 as all the card does is just store a unique serial number that you link to your accounts, and the card readers read only this info to authenticate. Mine’s an Evie Pass card that’s currently hooked up to Chargefox, Elanga, Evie and Exploren. It’s not only helpful to use when starting a charge, but on some chargers your session is locked while charging so others can’t mess with it without you being there – to unlock you need to reauthenticate, so the card comes in handy instead of having to fumble with your phone again to end a session.

It was here that I encountered the first of many random casual chats – with both EV owners and EV-curious people. I was reading a book while waiting for the charge to finish, when a family of 3 pulled up in their Tesla. They fumbled around a while, so I asked whether they needed any help – they only had their mobile (with no reception) to try to start the charge with and had the old app which also was unsupported, so they needed to use Wi-Fi that the petrol station shared with them to get things going. Turns out they were also from Brisbane! So that led to chit-chat about their experiences with their car, how their son also wanted an EV, and all the things he needs to deal with for electrical work to be done in apartments to get a charger in when that happens.

Charging slowed to a crawl as it reached 100% – this is expected as most EV systems slow charging down when it gets full to balance charge in a battery – stretching the charge to nearly 90 minutes. Normally I try and stay within the 20%-80% range, but in this case I needed a full charge because the next charging stop was some distance away and I would need to make the most of that 200-ish kilometre range. Once the charge was finished, I hopped in to drive off… only to be greeted with a battery temperature in the omnious red zone.

“Uh… is this bad?” I had done some research before that suggested that this can happen and it’s not all bad news. As long as I didn’t hit the end of that temperature range, the car wouldn’t be restricted significantly – in the photo you might notice that the number of grey segments above the P symbol on the dash has reduced in number, meaning acceleration power available has been slightly capped. Like with a good roast, I decided to let the battery stand for 10 minutes, and it cooled off enough to not be as alarming.

This didn’t bode well, having a battery that’s this hot, this early; but as you’ll see over the course of the road trip, I learnt to work within the restrictions of the car pretty well and battery temperature didn’t significantly affect my car apart from slowing charging down further. But it certainly goes to show that the passive battery cooling approach of the Leaf isn’t good when you need to do deep charges frequently, which you’ll need to do on long drives.

A screenshot of the Chargefox app, opened to the charging station information for "NRMA - Coffs Harbour". A notice reads: "Station currently OUT OF ORDER. Station owner aware of fault. Currently under investigation."
ぴえん 🥺

I also use downtime when the car’s charging to check up on chargers on the part of the trip coming up – which is important, because you never know when they could fault which could leave you high and dry if it’s the only charger in town. Case in point: Coffs Harbour would have been the next place with a compatible fast charger. It was (mostly) working until consistent faults began to be reported on Plugshare about 2 days before. It had two chargers and both were down – so much for redundancy.5

It’s annoying because it means two things: I need to find an alternative charger (not too hard on major routes, but when you might have big stretches between chargers, limited range, and limited chargers to choose from due to the use of a different plug…) and charge more at each stop (which compounds the temperature problem, and increases charge time a lot more because of the non-linear charging speed as you get closer to 100% and/or the battery gets hotter.)

Thankfully the next charger along was available, and not too far away from Coffs. But before that: a quick stopover at Carobana – a carob confectionery factory, and the Big Banana (didn’t bother with the amusement park though.)

Lunch time – and time for a charge at the large BP station located on the Pacific Highway around Nambucca Heads. ‘Large’ is an understatement – the forecourt is massive, and the building houses a couple of fast food restaurants together with an expansive seating area. I took the lazy path and ended up making it another McDonalds though. (Also the first time I used the MyMaccas app and the in-app offer was too good to pass!) 40 minutes later and the car’s topped up from 30% to 80%.

Continuing down south, the next stop was Port Macquarie, or to be more precise the chargers at the Port Macquarie Service Centre in Thrumster. The place was easy to find – however one of the two chargers was out of action, and a queue had already formed behind someone who wanted to get to 100%. Remember how I mentioned that charging slows down the closer you get to 100%? Not everyone was happy, but I pulled up anyway to be the third in the wait queue.

I took some time to use the amenities, and waited… After about 20 minutes with the situation not changing, I decided I would pop over to another charging station at a shopping centre about a kilometre away. Those were the only two places I could charge – if this other one wasn’t available, I was gonna face a long wait, potentially an hour or two long.6

Thankfully out of the two chargers there, one was unoccupied and someone was leaving the other. I spent some time in an air conditioned supermarket waiting for the car to charge and returned to find a Tesla that had slipped in to the charging spot next to mine, complaining about the relatively slow charge at the NRMA charger. I pointed out that a bunch of Superchargers were just across the road – I think they said they were locals? but had no idea that they existed until now, and it turned out that they were made available literally the day before.

I only noticed the Superchargers when I started to get bored reading my book and looked up. I should do that more often.

The last planned charge before I hit Newcastle was to be at Nabiac. Apart from having to deal with the wet, it was an uneventful charge, but noticably slower: getting from 32% to 80% took an hour at a rate of around 17kW – far slower than the 40kW or so that you normally expect for a quick charge on a Leaf.

Off on the final stretch down to Newcastle! Or so I thought… my precalculated figures had me making it to Newcastle just fine, but the car’s range estimate was dropping like a stone as I was barrelling down the highway. I slowed my car to hover a little lower than the full speed limit, but that didn’t help, so I decided that I needed a quick top up. This ended up being at Heatherbrae, just outside of Newcastle. By the time I got there, the estimate was 36km and I needed 25km to get to where I was stopping over – a bit too close for comfort considering that I thought that I would have had more of a buffer. 15 minutes later and 9% was added to bump the battery up to 24%.

A screenshot of the Chargefox app with information of a completed charge. Information shown indicates the charge is free.
I want my invoice!

Finally got to Newcastle just before 8:30pm, 2-ish hours later than I had anticipated, and with a charge of 11%. After checking in and dropping off stuff in my room, I went straight for the slow charger located about a 20 minute walk from where I was staying. I only needed an overnight charge, and the charger being free sweetened the deal. It was by this time that I desperately needed something to eat because of the back-to-back charging stops and all I found that was still open at this hour was… a McDonalds. That made it 3 meals out of 3 that day. (I made a promise to myself to do better and not go to major fast food restaurants for the rest of the trip.)7

I did plan to leave my car just charging there overnight, but I was anxious enough about my car just hanging out all by itself, lonely in the dark, out in the cold… that I returned to the car and slept in it! When it finally hit 90% at some ungodly hour, I packed up, drove it back to my accommodation and dove straight into bed.

It was one heck of long day, starting and finishing in the dead of night. I did learn a couple of things about the Leaf on this first leg – especially around managing battery temperature and charging times, which blew out well over the estimates that both I and the ABRP app had, mainly because of thermal throttling. After all that happened though, I think the day went pretty well considering all that I could have encountered.

Continues in Part II.

As part of this series, I’ll put a summary of the charging locations and how much it cost to charge,8 as that’s been the most common thing people asked in my interactions while on the trip. I’ve also included an approximate figure for how much the car effectively cost to charge at home off solar at the start of the trip. $58 for 770km is not bad considering the equivalent in fuel would be anywhere from $80 to $200 at today’s prices, depending on your car and driving.

Home (“lost” solar feed-in, approx. $0.10/kWh for nominal 40kWh battery)4.00
Chargefox discount9-2.08
Nambucca Heads8.44
Port Macquarie (Thrumster)10.45
NRMA discount10-1.05
NRMA discount-0.87
Subtotal (excluding discounts)57.85 / 770km
Trip total (excluding discounts)57.85 / 770km
  1. Time zones! They bit me when I was first manually calculating trip times. I thought I was going crazy at first – losing an hour here, half an hour there… ↩︎
  2. This car has built-in navigation which also ‘helpfully’ takes over the clock – going to the clock settings via the central dash just directs you to configure it in the navigational system. Because I didn’t convert the head unit, and in another case of Japan-only-does-Japan-things, it doesn’t bother with giving you adjustments because the clock is synchronised to GPS and Japan only has one time zone. ‘We’ll save you from setting the time! It’s guaranteed to be correct!’ The best you can do is apply a corrective offset of no more than 59 minutes, to get you close enough to the 1 hour difference between there and AEST in Queensland. So the car will forever be a minute slow. 🙄 ↩︎
  3. Attentive readers might notice that the dash display is in Japanese – I didn’t bother with a language conversion when I got it imported because the controls are pretty straightforward to operate, most things are already labelled in English anyway, and I have enough knowledge of the language to get around the menus and understand messages that come up. This knowledge would come useful later… ↩︎
  4. I will say – the number of different charging networks just in Australia alone is ridiculous: I have active accounts with 7 of them (so far!) Which means 7 separate apps, 7 sets of credentials, and 7 slightly different ways of dealing with charging and billing. Using bank cards directly via NFC might help for casual use (and that feature is only in testing on a limited number of chargers at the moment), but you still would need their apps and accounts to find the chargers, monitor charging status remotely, keep track of spending, support etc… I don’t see how you could have so many competing networks in a market like Australia’s in the long term if everyone needs more than a handful of different accounts just to charge. ↩︎
  5. Faults were reported 19 December 2023 – last I checked it’s still down, with servicing scheduled for 22 January. Networks and equipment suppliers need to step up their game because range anxiety and charger availability are pretty high on the list of fears about EVs. ↩︎
  6. I found out later that even if I had waited for the remaining operational Port Macquarie Service Centre charger, it would have been in vain – the CHAdeMO plug on it was reported faulty on Plugshare, but I had somehow missed that. Good thing I tried the other charging station. ↩︎
  7. Spoiler: I successfully did! ↩︎
  8. Of course with the qualification that prices do shift – case in point: Evie announced another round of price rises not long after I finished this trip… ↩︎
  9. Chargefox currently gives a 20% discount to members of motoring associations, and I happened to have a My NRMA subscription that I got for free the previous year, which got extended for another year for free. Thanks NRMA! ↩︎
  10. NRMA chargers also have a 10% discount for NRMA members but this is not listed separately in billing, so I’ve recalculated the charges/discounts here. ↩︎