I am a huge fan of internal combustion-engine driven cars. I think they’re loads of fun to drive, and from a mechanical complexity standpoint, they really satisfy the engineer-y side of my brain. But another joy of the outgoing method of vehicle propulsion came to my mind yesterday when I ran out of gas: It’s easy to get un-stranded when your tank is empty. Like, really easy.
Yesterday, I drove out to Chelsea, Michigan, to look at the holy grail manual- trans Jeep Grand Cherokee that I told everyone was sold, and bragged about having successfully resisted despite strong temptation. Turns out, the car wasn’t sold, and when the seller contacted me, I was unable to resist the temptation.
I drove out to have a look. My god, was that Jeep beautiful. Check it out:
The interior, too, was mint (the shift-pattern indicator was missing, and the seller was too afraid to install it on a cold day because the part is brittle):
Bob, the seller, was asking $3,900. I came in with a bid of $3,400. He said no. I walked it up to $3,500, and he said no again. So I walked away from a beautiful purple Holy Grail. With 230,000 miles on the odometer, it was just too much. I’d gone in with $3,500 as my max, and I had to stick to it.
Still, it was a tough call, and images of me piloting the purple Grail floated through my mind as I drove home from Chelsea to Troy—roughly an hour drive. The daydreaming led me to completely ignore my 2000 Jeep Cherokee’s fuel gauge, and before I knew it, I was stranded on the side of a major highway:
This was inconvenient, for I had a meeting in 20 minutes with leaders of my company, including the CEO. Though I had my AAA card, I knew assistance would take forever to arrive, and as a general rule, I prefer to get myself out of dumb situations — especially ones that I get myself into. I hopped onto Google Maps:
That’s right. I ran my Jeep out of gas at a random location in the Detroit metro area, and it turns out there was a gas station within half a mile. God, our country’s fuel station infrastructure is incredible.
Anyway, I will say that walking along busy freeways in 20-degree weather isn’t something I’m going to make a habit of, and I strongly discourage it (obviously):
Look at this man walking along a highway on a quest for petroleum-derived fluid. He is a fool; he knows it; but he’s cool with it.
Ten minutes had elapsed before I arrived at a Sunoco with a beautiful, old-school sign showing SUNOCO in the middle of a yellow diamond with a red arrow shooting through it, pointing toward the station as if to say “David, here lies salvation.”
I bought a one-gallon jerry can for $9, filled it up for two bucks and marched back to the stranded Jeep on the side of Interstate 696. I trudged through deep snow and hopped over a barrier carrying a jerry can in my right hand, and my phone in my left, pressed up against my ear. I was trying to make it seem to my bosses like I was listening in on this official meeting from my calm, serene home office as I diligently produced articles, and that I was not walking along a freezing-cold roadway after taking a few hours off from work to look at another Jeep I didn’t need.
I arrived at my vehicle, though I was facing another issue. My battery was on the fritz.
For some reason, my Jeep has been suffering from a slow-start issue. This isn’t a big deal, since the Jeep eventually does crank up. But I knew that with no fuel in the lines, it would take quite a while for gas to make it up to the fuel rail under the hood. Even if I primed the bump a bunch of times, there was a decent chance that my battery would die by the time fuel reached the engine.
So I popped my hood, and poured gas directly into the throttle body. Then I poured the rest of the gallon-jug of gas into my tank, and drove to the nearest fuel station. The whole thing was no big deal, really...just about 30 minutes of walking, $11, and I was back on my way home. Strategic use of the mute and “video off” buttons on my phone meant my company executives were none the wiser.
“What is the point of this blog?” you may ask yourselves. First, it’s to point out the truly limitless nature of my own stupidity. And second, it’s to just note the chasm between internal combustion engine-powered vehicles and electric vehicles in this specific area.
If your EV runs out of juice — and I mean truly runs out of juice — there’s no jerry can you can buy at your nearest charging station (yet). Plus, even if there were, the nearest charging station is probably really, really far away. There are well over 100,000 gas stations in the U.S., and each probably has at least six pumps on average, if I had to guess. Meanwhile, per A.P. News, in July 2020 there were only 26,000 EV charging stations, with 84,000 plugs in total.
There are a number of reasons why it doesn’t make sense to compare gas station count to EV charging station count, especially right now, but I’m just pointing out how running out of gas really highlights how convenient it has become to drive gas cars these days. And some of these conveniences are things we might miss in the future.
If your EV runs out of juice, sure, you could bring a generator, but that’s expensive and heavy. The reality is, you’re probably going to have to tow your machine. Think about how annoying that is versus just snagging a jerry can and filling it with gas.
To be fair, though, EVs do a much, much better job of warning drivers when fuel is about to be depleted. My old Jeep Cherokee just chimed once and showed a light next to my gauge. Modern cars are a bit better about this, chiming and showing “fuel level low” (or something along these lines) on the gauge cluster. But EVs do it best. Here’s the Chevy Bolt’s strategy to help ensure that drivers aren’t stranded on the side of a cold Michigan highway. From the owner’s manual:
When the high voltage battery is getting low, charging messages may display. The CHARGE VEHICLE SOON message indicates that the driving range is low and the vehicle needs to be charged soon.
As the charge level drops, the PROPULSION POWER IS REDUCED message is displayed and the accelerator pedal response is reduced. In addition, the remaining range value will change to LOW indicating the vehicle should be charged immediately.
When the energy is fully depleted, the OUT OF ENERGY, CHARGE VEHICLE NOW message displays and the vehicle slows to a stop. Brake and steering assist will still operate. Once the vehicle has stopped, turn the vehicle off.
I especially like the derate strategy, because that one’s hard to ignore. It’s easy to neglect a screen or to forget about a chime, but when your vehicle doesn’t respond the way it’s supposed to based on your pedal input, it sends a message that something is definitely wrong. That’s the same feeling that I experienced as my vehicle began running on fumes; my foot was on the pedal, but the engine was just sputtering. I knew I was screwed.
From the standpoint of preventing your vehicle from becoming disabled (which is really what matters most, if we’re honest), I think the technique applied by EVs is king. But once the vehicle succumbs, there’s nothing like the ability to transport 120 million joules of energy in a jug that weighs less than seven pounds.