Electrifying news about the future of the road trip

Might travel by electric and autonomous vehicle beget the return of the roadside attraction?

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road trip
Carhenge, located in western Nebraska, is a roadside attraction that duplicates Stonehenge, except it is made from classic American cars | Larry Edsall photo

I arrived at an interesting intersection a few days ago. 

It began with the arrival of a news release from Electrify America, announcing the completion of its first cross-country route served by its network of fast-charging devices for electric vehicles. In fact, the company noted, by the end of this summer, it will offer two cross-country routes for travel by EV.

Electrify America, which is based in Reston, Virginia, said the completed route — using interstates 15 and 70 — goes from Los Angeles, through California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland before arriving at Washington, D.C. Along this route, charging stations are, on average, only 70 miles from each other.

Good-bye, range anxiety!

Electrify America has one cross-country route with charging stations spaced about every 70 miles and says it will offer another more-Southern route by the end of summer | Electrify America illustration

The second route will span San Diego to Jacksonville, Florida — via I 10 and 8 — across California and through Arizona New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and on across northern Florida.

The company adds that it already has both coasts covered with stations along I-5 in the West and I-95 in the East. Overall, it has more than 435 locations with more than 1,900 fast-charging units.

Like me, your initial response might be, “So what?” My car — or, in my case, my pickup truck — runs on liquid rather than electronic fuel, and my driving isn’t limited by range anxiety unless I neglect to pay attention to the fuel gauge.

McPherson
History professor Ken Yohn | McPherson College photo

But two days after that Electrify America news release popped up in my inbox, I was among the more than 140 people taking part in the first Zoomcast from McPherson College as it launched its 6-week series, “Wheels of Change: How the Automobile Shaped Our Lives.”

Each weekly presentation runs an hour and features Ken Yohn, educated and entertaining chair of McPherson’s history department, and a guest; for the first week, the guest was Kyle Smith, a McPherson grad who is an associate editor at Hagerty.

The subject for the opening week was road trips, and by the time Prof. Yohn was finished — not really finished, just warming up, but the hour was over — I was ready to re-enroll in college just to take one of his classes. 

One of his points was that while Carl Benz may have invented a self-propelled machine, no one much cared. At least not until his wife, Bertha, basically stole the car while Carl slept and drove with their two sons to visit her parents more than 60 miles away. It was her trip which actually created how people would think about Carl’s invention, the motorcar.

As Yohn noted, news spread of Bertha’s caper and her return trip received major coverage by the 19th century German news media. As a result, people began viewing the car as a reliable means of travel. 

Something somewhat similar happened a few years later in the U.S. when a Curved Dash Olds was driven from Michigan to the 1901 New York Auto Show. Publicity after the car’s arrival — including news of its clandestine travel along the Eric Canal tow path — helped boost Olds sales from 600 vehicles in 1901 to 2,500 the following year.

Again, interesting stuff, but how does it relate to that intersection I encountered? Here’s how: After their presentations, Yohn and Smith took questions. One was about doing road trips in electric and even autonomous vehicles.

Smith’s response was that he thinks the EV, with its need to stop more frequently for recharging, could beget the rebirth of the roadside attraction.  Coffee-pot-shaped cafes and “mystery spots” and “See the Jackalope” and the like were largely bypassed when the interstate highway system was created. But, Smith wondered aloud, might their ilk return to entice and entertain travelers as they — quite literally — recharge their batteries?

And Yohn’s response was equally surprising. He addressed self-driving cars and said he looks forward to being able to stare at the scenery out the side windows instead of having to train his focus on the roadway ahead as he drives.

Hmmm, turns out that intersection I encountered might mark the turn to a new era in road trips and their popularity.

PS: There are five weeks left in McPherson’s free online webinar series with Ken Yohn and guests. Next up, on July 2, is “Paving the Way for the Automobile,” roads, steam omni-buses, bicycles and the entrepreneurs behind them. The scheduled guest is Andrew Beckman, archivist at the Studebaker National Museum. To join in, visit the McPherson website.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. So to take an extended road trip in an electric car we drive for 70 miles and then stop for 8 hours or more to recharge the batteries? Think of how long that would take to traverse even one state, let alone the entire country? I’m not bitterly opposed to electric vehicles but right now they’re just not practical. Self-driving cars I want nothing to do with on the other hand.

  2. EVs likely have a range of around 200 or more miles. You don’t have to stop every 70 miles, any more than you stop at every gas station to top off. Plus these are fast-charge stations that recharge your batteries in a matter of minutes, not hours. It’s networks of fast-charging stations that will make EVs practical for road trip travel.

  3. The left wingers are determined to saddle us with spinless junk like electric cars, partly because they cant stand that we have fun with the sounds and characteristics of internal combustion. keep up the faith-resist

    • You’re absolutely right. But EVs are better than you think. Check out the upcoming Mach E from Ford, or the Tesla Model 3.

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