‘Borne’ to be wild: taking the Zoe from NL to the South of France!

[A guest post by kapiteinrob]

You’re going to do what??!?

Our family and friends asked us: “Are you going to buy a fully electric car!?!? How on earth will that work on holiday? Surely you can’t drive one of those to the South of France?” Well, we decided we wanted to support the electric revolution and bought one anyway, we would figure out the holiday thing afterwards!

Since then we’ve made the trip, survived it, and made it back in one piece to Amsterdam. This is our story about cheap travel, (non)functioning charge points (or ‘Bornes’ as they are called in French), ‘truck-hugging’, range anxiety, not breaking for roundabouts, low voltage camp-sites and high-fives after our Zoe emitted its charging ‘zoom’.

Some context

We live in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. We usually go camping in the summer, and drive to the South of France in one day (13 hours) with an ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) car. We had agreed to meet family near Apt, just East of Avignon in the very South of France on a set date. We received our Blanc Glacier Zoe (Intense, Quickcharge) three days prior to setting out.

Preparation

We made sure to prepare very well, we used chargemap.fr to find the best possible route (via Paris) and created a Google Map where we plotted all the points, you can view it here (link). To double-check whether we did not forget anything, we posted in French, English and Dutch on the following forums: this one, a French forum, and a Dutch one and received some good responses and tips.

We made sure we had all the relevant equipment:

  • The “granny cable” for incidental loading supplied by Renault to charge from a regular Schuko socket
  • A CEE extension cable (20m) to be able to charge on campsites, with a convertor back to Schuko to allow us to charge Schuko to Granny Cable across distance.
  • The Kiwhi Pass for charging at Auchan (and other points) in France (had it sent to the company’s own address, then phoned to get it sent over to NL)
  • Ordered a French (Lebara) SIM card with internet for up to date ChargeMap and rerouting info through our smartphone.
  • Based on online reviews, we had little faith in the R-Link navigation, so we opted for TomTom GO on Android, supported with Google Maps where required.
  • A few packets of ‘Stroopwafels’ (link) to hand out as a thank-you for people helping us. 😉

The trip there: day one (520km, 10 hours)

On Sunday 19th July 2015 we woke up a little anxious in Amsterdam, packed our stuff and set out! The first stops were easy, we went via Oosterhout (NL, The New Motion Pass), Antwerp (BE, Carrefour, The New Motion Pass) and Nivelles (BE, Van der Valk Hotel, The New Motion Pass). Then we entered France and we were about to find out whether our Kiwhi pass would work! Our first encounter with a French charger in Valenciennes (FR, Auchan, Kiwhi Pass) was very unfortunate, it gave an unexplained error. Fortunately we had enough range to make it to the second Auchan with a charger in Valenciennes. We pushed on through Saint Quentin (FR, Auchan, Kiwhi Pass) and did an additional stop in Viry Noureuil (FR, Auchan, Kiwhi Pass) to ensure we could make the stretch to Creil (FR, Auchan, Kiwhi Pass), which we completed successfully!

We had booked a hotel in Senlis, right next to a Tesla charging point, unfortunately we were unable to load there (even Schuko through a window proved impossible as there was no plug within reach). We talked to a Norwegian Tesla driver about the Leclerc card, he mentioned it’s easy to get and should work in Leclerc stores across the country.

Trip report day one: 14.9 kWh / 100 km (Image: kapiteinrob)
Trip report day one: 14.9 kWh / 100 km (Image: kapiteinrob)

In summary, a great day to kick things off, we were frequently very careful and did not drive too fast to ensure we had sufficient range to make it to our next stop.

The trip there: day two (~540km, 14 hours)

We knew we would be tested today, as the charging points would become much less densely populated! We needed to charge at the next Ikea (Villiers Sur Marne, no pass required). It took us 30 mins to reach it from the highway (heavy traffic), but at the end of it was an Ikea breakfast while we watched our car charge!

Breakfast & Charge @ Ikea (Image: kapiteinrob)
Breakfast & Charge @ Ikea (Image: kapiteinrob)

Then we were off to Le Châtelet-en-Brie (FR, Leclerc). We had heard it was easy to get a Leclerc card, but the first answer we received was: “the card is only for French residents”. This was going to be tough, without a Leclerc card we could hardly make it through the French ‘electric desert’ between Paris and Lyon…. After explaining that this would cost us several days of holiday, they decided to give it a try in the system. We had to circumvent the information to be entered for a local address (we used the Leclerc store’s own address itself) and the license plate (just enter whatever) but after 1.5hrs got it working, we could charge at 22kW! We gave the lady at the reception a packet of Stroopwafels as a thank you!

Finally, we could charge @ Leclerc! (Image: kapiteinrob)
Finally, we could charge @ Leclerc! (Image: kapiteinrob)

Then on to Gien (FR, Auchan, Kiwhi Pass) where we had no issues charging. Subsequently on to Nevers (Leclerc). The pass obtained in Le Châtelet-en-Brie did not work: “identifiant inconnu”! We went inside to talk to the service desk and after talking to a few people and lots of waiting a manager, that drove a Leclerc Zoe himself for local errands, came out to help us. He explained that each individual Leclerc store determines whether other cards are allowed to charge at their ‘Bornes’. They could not issue a new card since we already had an account in the system. He allowed us to charge using his card, but that would not help us for our next stop: the Leclerc in Paray-le-Monial. We would arrive outside opening hours (19:30) so would have no service desk to go to and needed a solution to avoid being stranded there. After looking sad and pleading the manager decided to, ‘just for this one time’, make a (photo)copy of the store’s own Leclerc card that should work there as well. We decided to take our chances and continue on to Paray-le-Monial! As a thank you the manager received the second packet of Stroopwafels!

Then we had a long stretch (120km) on to Paray-le-Monial (Leclerc) and we had our fingers crossed that we were able to charge at the Leclerc at the end of our route – we travelled on smaller roads, maintained a low speed and learned how to avoid braking on roundabouts! We arrived full of anticipation, and were flipped from heaven to hell a few times:

  • First, the copied Leclerc pass did not work: “identifiant inconnu” again, damn!
  • Amazingly, the regular Leclerc pass gave the correct message!
  • However, the socket lid did not unlock…..
  • After pulling and prying very hard, we managed to open it, plugged in, and damn, something was wrong with the power supply!
  • We re-did the whole thing and then finally, our Zoe was charging. We would make it to the goal-destination for day 2! After loading to 99% the dashboard indicated 172km of range based on our very ecologic driving style across this last stretch!

Then we managed to push on to our intended campsite in Fleurie, where we were able to load on the campsite using CEE extension cord and granny cable just fine, after a night of charging we would always be full.

Charging at the campsite, no troubles at all! (Image: kapiteinrob)
Charging at the campsite, no troubles at all! (Image: kapiteinrob)

The trip there: day three (~330km, 10 hours)

Fleurie is situated just above Lyon where there were serious blockades of angry farmers on the A6/A7 that we wanted to take. We had planned an alternate route via St Etienne but luckily in the morning this proved unnecessary: the roadblocks were gone! We tweeted to the Dutch Road Service organization (ANWB) for up-to-date info and based on that a Dutch reporter called us to find out what the situation was. She asked with whom I had made a bet to drive down to the South of France with an electric car, haha!

First we drove to St Romaine-en-Gal (CNR, Kiwhi Pass), a new type of charger/provider, but also running on Kiwhi pass, one of the chargers was down, but the other one worked and we charged just fine. Then we went on to Le Pouzin (CNR, Kiwhi Pass) and our nightmare became a reality: both chargers did not work and we decided to backtrack 30km to a reliable (Auchan) point in Valence to ensure we could make the next stretch. In Valence (Auchan, no pass) we charged just fine, and we needed it for the next 122km stretch across traffic blocked highways! Including traffic jams the backtracking cost us about 3 hours of additional travelling time….

We were very anxious about making it to our next charge in Le Pontet, so we decided to see if we could get a 1-hr granny cable charge while grabbing something to eat at a rest stop. We convinced the guy manning a Carrefour gas station booth to allow us to plug and were charging just fine. However, while eating our burger, we saw a store employee coming out to unplug us! I went out to meet him but he would not budge, I made my way up through 3 levels of management and explained the predicament we were in. However, they would not let us charge since their electric systems were not ‘set up to support electric cars’. Despite explaining that I was quite confident his store could handle 220v and 16A (the car charged fine for 5 mins), they would not reconsider. By our calculations we should have enough charge anyway, but a little safety net would have been nice….

Charging at the Carrefour gas station, for about 5 minutes (Image: kapiteinrob)
Charging at the Carrefour gas station, for about 5 minutes (Image: kapiteinrob)

We made it to Le Pontet (near Avignon, Auchan, no Kiwhi pass required) with 20km to spare, this meant we would make it to our final destination, in three days, with the Renault Zoe! At our final destination, Camping Les Chênes Blancs, we tripped a few fuses, probably due to low voltage here and there, but were able to charge on at least one charging post using blue CEE + granny cable, which was sufficient to get around for a week.

The journey back

We followed more or less the same route, so we’ll spare you all the details. We were able to achieve a much faster travel time because we were much more confident of the charging points and our own range. Two out of three Leclercs points worked with the cards we had obtained, the one in Chatelet en Brie did not for some weird reason, and we had to deactivate and reactive our account. @Leclerc, can you please allow charging across all Leclercs with one card? On the first day we made it from Apt to Bourbon-Lancy. We took a wrong turn near Macon, which meant we would likely not have enough range to make it to Paray-le-Monial. We decided to do some quick charging at the Macon Auchan, and lost about 30 minutes. In our hotel we tried to plug into a regular wall socket, but we could only charge for 5 minutes until the Zoe/Granny Cable killed the charge. We were not sure what the problem was.

Day 2 we made it to Chantilly, where we intended to stay and camp for a few days. This day was a breeze, as we knew the charging points would work and we upped our speed quite a bit. Day three was also an easy ride, as the charging stations north of Paris and in Belgium and the Netherlands are plentiful.

Conclusions

  • It’s cheap! We spent about €40 charging (€10 in France @ CNR, the rest in Belgium & the Netherlands), as opposed to about €350 on gas for a comparable model.
  • Driving behind trucks increases your range, see consumption picture. Even though we drove more slowly (~10%) behind a truck the reduction in consumption was tremendous (~33%), allowing for more distance on a charge.
  • French infrastructure is point-oriented and not meant to be used as a network. Charging points are almost always located away from the highway you are on, costing you precious time. Leclerc cards do not work across stores. CNR has great signs up that they have built a (paid) charging corridor in the South of France, however due to their unreliability we had to backtrack 30kms resulting in a 3-hr time loss. They need to get their act together if they want people to seriously consider taking their electric car there.
  • Granny cable does not always provide a solution. The granny cable does not always work due to low voltage, low amperes or due to unhelpful people that do not allow you to plug in. However we are confident that if you’re really out of range, you should be able to find someone to help you out based on how desperate you must look at that point 😉
  • It’s stressful. We had thought we would be reading a book while charging, instead we usually spent the time finding the optimal route to the next point and making sure it actually worked (chargemap.fr). Due to their unreliability you are always making sure you have enough charge left to make it to a suitable alternative (if an alternative is available at all).
First driving ~95km/h alone, then gaining on the truck, then driving ~85 km/h behind the truck (Image: kapiteinrob)
First driving ~95km/h alone, then gaining on the truck, then driving ~85 km/h behind the truck (Image: kapiteinrob)

Recommendations

  • Prepare: get the Kiwhi pass (and possible Autolib pass, which can be used in and around Paris). Map out your route using chargemap.fr, make sure there are enough reliable points and alternatives.
  • Drive slowly: speed is everything – you can severely limit your Kwh/km usage if you drive 65 on 90km/h roads, and 90 on 130km/h highways. Hug behind a truck if you can, but of course maintain a safe distance!
  • Be confident in the Zoe’s range: even 43kW charging points allowed us to charge up to 99%, and we would usually complete our 110km legs with about 50km of range left.
  • Stay flexible: try not to lock yourself in to arrive somewhere on a set date (e.g. hotel bookings), this will give you more peace of mind since you don’t ‘have to’ reach the next point but can remain flexible.

Looking forward

Supposedly 200 charge points are being built along the highways of Sanef (link), this should make driving down across France a breeze! Increased reliability of charging points, points closer to the highway and more coverage are a must to make electric driving a success in France! Until that time, follow our recommendations and take your time, and you can take your Zoe to the South of France as well!