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The Family Vacation, Powered by Ethanol & Electricity

March 18, 2024

Flex Fuel E85, RFA News, FFVs


By Robert White

Senior Vice President, Industry Relations and Market Development


Family vacations are always the best of all worlds. We live and work for a good, relaxing break, but then the planning of our vacations can be a lot of stress and work. I grew up in rural America, around Garnett, Kan. Family vacations were not always plentiful; but when they happened, they would tend to be road trips to some interesting places. I made the trip to California a few times in my youth, and always returned with a memorable story or two. Taking the Oldsmobile Delta 88 Diesel (a vehicle that produced more black smoke than James Bond in a getaway) to the Grand Canyon always stands out in my memory, along with seeing the same vehicle totaled by a mountain sheep near Hoover Dam. Another trip included what I remember to be a Pontiac Horizon hatchback whose air conditioning went out just ahead of Death Valley.


Needless to say, these trips still get plenty of laughs and produced memories I will never forget. Now with a 7-year-old daughter, I am trying to make those memories with her, knowing that no vacation will ever be perfect. Ahead of the National Ethanol Conference this year, I drove my family across the country from Kansas City to San Diego. We made the entire trip in the RFA flex fuel plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (FFPHEV). Here, for your reading enjoyment (and education on the pros and cons of hybrid electric technology), is my travel log.


Day One


We left home with a full charge and a full tank of E85 fresh off of a Super Bowl victory by our Kansas City Chiefs. My wife, who does not like road trips, and my daughter, who can state “I’m bored” in under 20 minutes some days, decided to give it a try. Our first stop was in Pratt, Kan.,  where we topped off with E85 and then again in Liberal, Kan. While the vehicle wasn’t empty yet, there were other reasons to stop, and with this spacing in fueling, we could make it all of the way to Albuquerque on one charge and 100% E85. And we did just that. We stopped for the night at a Holiday Inn Express, one I had stayed at two times previously as I made the first trek back and forth to California for emissions testing in this car. I also knew this hotel had free EV charging; I had used this amenity twice already. It worked great those times, so why not use it again?


Day Two


I awoke to a surprise on my phone. What started off as free charging somehow changed in the middle of the night. I was notified in the middle of the night that once charging was complete the charge would be five dollars an hour if I didn’t move the vehicle! I had the only electric vehicle at this hotel and was not expecting this at all. It was still  too early to sneak out to unplug the car without waking up my family. I decided that a well-rested family is probably worth more than a few five-dollar bills. But once the family finally stirred, I was on the hook for $32 in  “non-movement” charges. The car was ready to go on 29 miles of charge. Wow! That means for electricity it would cost $1.10/mile. There were plenty of options for E85 in the area, and we filled for just over $2/gallon. That translates to just $.05/mile. Using E85 would save us over $1/mile.


We headed for the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert. I knew we would need to refuel before we would get there, but I also knew gas stations would be few and far between in this area and E85 would not likely be available. However, I knew there were E15 options in the area, thanks to Maverik, the new owners of Kum & Go. They identify E15 as Eco 88 Unleaded and it was priced a dime under regular unleaded in Gallup, N.M. Once at the Petrified Forest National Park, one charger was available there, but at an extremely slow rate of 1kWh. Our car would’ve taken more than 14 hours to charge for the ~29 miles of range as seen early this day. Imagine how long it would have taken a Tesla, needing more than 80 kWh!


We plugged in while we were in the visitor center and gift shop and came out to two miles of additional range. After a stop for lunch on the corner in Winslow, Arizona, we headed on to the Grand Canyon area for the night.



Day Three


On this day, we encountered the best(?) charger of the whole trip (see picture). Yes, that is a black trash bag covering and wrapping the charger. According to multiple apps and websites, this charger has been “bagged” for nearly six months.  There is no number to call, and no one seems to care. We headed up to the Grand Canyon Village, where there was some charging, but for hotel guests only and nowhere near the visitor center or the restaurants. Day Three’s experience was an excellent reminder of the beauty of a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle: it doesn’t need electricity. Charge it when you can. Charge it when it makes sense (and cents). Charge it when it’s convenient and inexpensive.  The same is true for E85. Fuel it up with E85 when it is available and makes sense to do so; but if not, use E15 or E10, or even ethanol-free, if you have no other option. Flexibility!


After viewing the Grand Canyon, we headed to Bullhead City for the night. It was a similar story as the day before, with no charging at the hotel, and no charging within two miles of where we dined or where we stayed. While there was also no E85 in the area, according to the ethanol sensor in our eFlexFuel conversion kit, we were still operating on approximately 20% ethanol from previous E85 fills.



Day Four


We departed Bullhead City on a sugar high after experiencing some amazing donuts at Dandy’s Donuts. Our next stop was Joshua Tree National Park in California. My family has nicknamed this park the “Dr. Seuss Park,” as the trees are like something out of a Dr. Seuss book or movie. Just like all our other stops, if you haven’t been there, I recommend it. We started at the northern entrance and made our way south to exit and head into the Palm Springs area. Thankfully for this ethanol lover, we were back into E85 territory and stopped for fuel at the first Pearson Fuels station available in Indio. You would have to be blind to not notice the E85 price differential—a $2.40/gal discount! That’s 42%! It should be no surprise why E85 sales and availability continue to grow in California each year. We made the final push into San Diego over the mountains and watched the hybrid technology and the high octane E85 have fun.


Why is this important? We somehow averaged nearly 50 mpg going up and down the mountains (in a vehicle rated at 40 mpg). We pulled into our hotel in San Diego across from the USS Midway and were welcomed with free charging. I think my copilots were just happy to be out of the car.



Day Five


We were finally out of the car and enjoyed the San Diego area. The Ford Escape was full of E85 and had a free full charge thanks to the hotel. We were able to have breakfast at Breakfast Republic (maybe the only reason my wife made the trip), and then visited Balboa Park, Coronado Island, and a rooftop pool. It was a day to stretch our legs and enjoy the left coast. The USS Abraham Lincoln was even at port. What a site!




Family trips will always be an adventure, but one usually filled with plenty of laughs and memories for a lifetime. The same could be said for a long road trip with a battery-only EV… but it might be missing the laughs if it had taken the same route as we did. If we had been driving a BEV, not only would we have needed to reroute multiple times to ensure we had the charging and energy to go the distance, but would have added hours, if not days, to this trip. It also would not have been cheaper, even if you didn’t value your time or your family’s. Just take this trip as an example. When we had the opportunity to charge, which was very rare, the cost was significantly higher than that of E85 or even E15.


Electric vehicles have their place, and I expect them to grow. That said, there are plenty of limitations for these vehicles to replace our current vehicles today. It should be about convenience and cost, and neither are working in their favor today. That’s where a plug-in hybrid FFV like RFA’s Ford Escape comes into play. It truly combines the best of both technologies and helped make our road trip a fun, stress-free, and memorable journey.


I hope to see you on the open road soon!