Scherr: A Little Help? Roadside Assistance is Changing (Slowly)

·4 min read
Photo credit: Illustration by Gianna Meola - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Illustration by Gianna Meola - Car and Driver


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From the November 2021 issue of Car and Driver.

I ran out of gas in my own driveway—worse, actually, in the street in front of my own driveway. I knew the gauge was on empty and had been since before I left that morning. I'd like to say that's a rare happening for me, but with a mostly classic fleet and a sense of optimism that borders on a personality disorder, I tend to run things to the ragged edge. And hey, when I do finally run out, there's always the plastic gas can in the trunk.

Recently, however, I had to face the possible ramifications of applying my classic mindset to modern tech, as I watched the percentage drop on the battery readout in the Volvo XC40 Recharge I had blithely driven to the far side of its 208-mile EPA range. I made it home, but if I hadn't, charging it in the street would have required a long extension cord and a lot of patience from the neighbors.



Running out of gas is an increasingly rare mistake, at least according to Greg Brannon, director of automotive engineering for AAA, which annually responds to 30 million rescue calls about everything from flat tires to flooded engines. "We don't get the calls for gas that we once did," he says. "Modern vehicles give us all sorts of warnings. The gauges are more accurate. We've seen a steady decline over the last decade in calls for gas requests. Maybe 2 percent of our calls now are fuel related. It's a lot easier to run out in a classic car like yours."

I called Brannon not for absolution but to find out whether AAA has noticed any change in the sort of assistance its members need. I guess I expected to hear about a wild spike in EV flat tows to charging stations or maybe a dire need for tech that can juice a battery on the side of the road. But he says that given the small number of electric cars out there, plus the likelihood that those drivers are more attentive than the average commuter to their machines' needs, depleted EVs are a minuscule percentage of AAA calls. "We started a pilot program back in 2010 to look into EV roadside assistance," Brannon says. "We put together five models, different ways of mobile charging. Some worked off compressed natural gas or the power takeoff of the truck. Some worked off a big generator. When we put our prototype rescue trucks in place, nobody needed it. There just weren't enough electric vehicles on the road to demand the service."

This is not to say that AAA never has to rescue any electrics. "The only thing that's different about electric vehicles is the type of fuel they use," Brannon says. "You can still get a flat tire. You can still drive them into a ditch. You can still lock your keys in them." Brannon pauses. "Actually, people don't lock their keys in cars very often anymore either, but some cars will still do it if you try really hard."

So what does strand people these days? Batteries, the 12-volt kind. Electric cars have a regular 12-volt battery, too, and it does not have the same life as the high-voltage battery. When it goes bad, same thing: The car doesn't want to start.

"Batteries don't like heat, short trips, or sitting still for long periods. So you can imagine how the past year has led to a lot of battery calls." Brannon mentioned that right before our chat, he was helping a friend with a stranded Toyota. The cause? Dead battery. I didn't ask if he made his buddy show his AAA membership card.

But back to side-of-the-road run-out. If your hypermiling skills fail and your EV uses all its juice, there's no better solution than loading up and hauling to a charging point. Brannon says a quick recharge is still the goal and that AAA will have a solution sooner rather than later. "We know the need is growing as more EVs hit the road," he says. I'm just a little early in asking about it. In the meantime, I guess I better refill my plastic gas jug.

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