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Road trip! Electric vehicle-aficionados charged up to drive cross-country

This Ford Focus Electric is traveling from New York City to the Santa Monica Pier in California in the Electric Car Challenge, organized by Men's Health magazine.
This Ford Focus Electric is traveling from New York City to the Santa Monica Pier in California in the Electric Car Challenge, organized by Men's Health magazine.Courtesy Rodale

With the national average price of a gallon of gas approaching $4, you could be forgiven for thinking that the great American road trip is a thing of the past. But for a team of drivers about to drive from New York to Los Angeles, it’s a thing of the future.

Organized by Men’s Health magazine, the 2012 Electric Car Challenge (ECC) proposes to set a new record by making the roughly 3,000-mile trip without stopping at a single gas station.

“We love road trips and this is an excuse to have a different kind of trip,” said Eric Adams, a senior editor at the magazine and a member of the Challenge team. To accomplish the feat, the trip will utilize a 2012 Ford Focus Electric, require an estimated 40 to 55 recharging stops and rely on crowdsourcing and the kindness of others to ensure a dead battery doesn’t doom the effort.

While this isn’t the first multi-state, long-distance trip in an electric car – that honor belongs to Arizona Public Service and the Mars II Electric Car that went from Detroit to Phoenix over 15 days and 37 recharging stops back in 1967 – it aims to go farther in less time.

Related: Click here for much more coverage on electric vehicles

“It’ll be a ‘speed’ record in name only,” said Adams, who expects the team to reach the Santa Monica Pier in 10 to 12 days. Along the way, the team expects to promote various adventures — fitness challenges, environmental missions, etc. — during each 2- to 4-hour charging session.

For better or worse, they’ll also highlight the challenges that stand in the way of wide-scale acceptance of electric vehicles (EV). Chief among them: so-called “range anxiety,” the fear that you’ll run out of juice without a charging station in sight.

“Electric cars at this point are pretty much commuter vehicles,” said Carroll Lachnit, features editor at Edmunds.com. “It’s really difficult [to go further] because the infrastructure isn’t there yet.”

The Focus Electric, for example, has an EPA-estimated range of 76 miles, basically enough to get the team from New York to Bethlehem, Pa. At that point, they’ll either have to locate a public charging station or find a business or homeowner with 240V power — a clothes dryer outlet will do — and a willingness to share.

“Any business that has a welding station uses 240V,” said Adams. “We may call Firestone stores and see if we can roll up and plug in for a couple of hours.”

Elsewhere, they’ll take advantage of crowdsourcing and new apps, such as PlugShare and ChargePoint, that use mapping programs to show where the nation’s growing number of charging stations are. The PlugShare app, for example, shows 8,000 stations — 6,000 public, 2,000 home-based — along with insights about types of chargers, current availability and whether fees apply.

The idea, says Forrest North, founder of Xatori, which created PlugShare, is to move EVs beyond their current market of early adopters and alternative-fuel aficionados.

“We want that second tier of people to feel comfortable buying EVs,” he told msnbc.com. “If you see a lot of places to charge, it’ll help relieve their range anxiety.”

In the meantime, taking an EV on an extended road trip will present challenges. For example, higher speeds drain electric batteries faster, one reason the “Men’s Health” team expects to motor along on secondary roads at 40 to 50 mph. On the other hand, the Focus Electric’s combined MPGe, or miles per gallon equivalent, of 105 miles is pretty enticing when gas is nudging the $4 mark.

“It can be done but it can’t be done easily,” said Lachnit. “It’s not like getting in your car, heading for Vegas and just knowing there will always be a gas station on the next corner. EVs are not like that — you have to be much more decisive in your approach.”

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.