If you think trying to find an outlet for your laptop at the airport is a chore, wait until you have to find an outlet for your electric car at the hotel.
That's the quandary that faced us this evening as we rolled into Medford, Ore., our overnight stop on an 800-mile road trip in a Chevy Volt. Actually, our Volt was one of the four electric-plus-gasoline-powered cars making their way across the country as part of Chevrolet's "Volt Unplugged" tour. As the sun was about to set, we pulled into the TownePlace Suites' parking lot and headed into the hotel lobby.
Chevrolet Communications' Adam Denison asked the clerk at the desk where we should plug in the cars — and that's when the trouble began.
"I beg your pardon?" the clerk said. She hadn't heard anything about finding electrical outlets for four cars, and what's more, she didn't have any of our names on the registration list.
Actually, the clerk's quizzical reaction is probably what most electric-car drivers will face when they go on the road. To look into the issue of finding hotel plug-in power, I called around to seven Medford hotels in advance of this week's trip. The reactions ranged from "I'm sure there has to be an outlet somewhere" to "call back tomorrow" to the straightforward response I got from an establishment billed as Medford's finest hotel: "We do not have plug-ins available for hybrids."
Tonight, after working through the clerk's confusion, we found out that our reservations were actually at the TownePlace Suites' sister hotel across the parking lot, the SpringHill Suites. Both places are part of the Marriott hotel chain, one of the partners for the "Volt Unplugged" tour, so the SpringHill folks knew we were coming and had a sheet of instructions ready for us, listing the locations of electrical outlets on the building's exterior.
Simple, right? Wrong.
Looking for the outlets turned into a cross between an Easter egg hunt and a peeping-tom convention. We skulked around the perimeter of the hotel in the darkening twilight, walking through the bushes and under windows in search of places to plug in.
"If we can't plug in, we can't plug in," Denison said with a shrug.
I finally found one of the outlets near the disabled-parking places, and the other near the hotel dumpster. We decided it wouldn't be right to park our shiny new Volt in the disabled zone, so instead, the hotel let us park it right next to the front entrance. We laid out some red traffic cones, plugged in the Volt's specially designed 120-volt charging set and strapped the extension it down to the sidewalk with duct tape.
Two more outlets were found at the TownePlace, with the help of the SpringHill Suites' instructions and the TownePlace's maintenance crew. In the process, I found out that the Volt's charging cord set works best if it's the only thing plugged into an outlet, even if it's a double-socket outlet. If you try sharing an outlet with another device in the other socket, you have to cut back on the amps for charging, or risk blowing a circuit.
That's not all: The Chevy crew wanted the hotel to turn off the automatic sprinkler system for the night, just to make sure that an inconveniently placed cord set didn't get soaked. I just hope the expensive-looking set is still there in the morning when the 9- to 10-hour charging process is complete.
We spent the better part of an hour making the arrangements to plug in four cars, which made me wonder how hotels will handle the plug-in issue when there are thousands of electric cars on the road. If you're visiting your Aunt Rita, she'll probably let you run an extension cord out to your car from the front porch. But if you're staying overnight at a hotel, you might have to fight your way to an outlet — or just continue to fill 'er up at the gas station down the street. And even if the hotels are accommodating now, will they be so willing to give electricity away when 40 drivers are clamoring for overnight juice?
Am I making a mountain out of a 120-volt molehill? Or is this an electric-car complication that hasn't yet been thought completely through? Feel free to discuss this or other unintended consequences of the shift to electric vehicles in the comment section below.
Overnight mileage update: We went 490 miles today, with a gasoline top-off in Portland. 11.8 gallons of gasoline were burned, which translates to 41.5 miles per gallon. (The 32.9 miles of all-electric driving counts as a bonus in these calculations. If you subtract out those miles, that brings the mileage rating down to 38.7 miles per gallon.) If you assume that the Volt's gas tank holds 8.5 gallons, that means the car could have gone 350 miles or so without a fill-up or recharge ... which matches the range estimate that Chevrolet came up with.
Update for 10:25 a.m. ET Oct. 12: All the cars are charged up and ready to go for the second and final day of our road trip, less than 12 hours after they were plugged in. (Sorry, I didn't go out in the middle of the night to see exactly when they completed charging.) The hotel didn't have to turn off their sprinkler system. Instead, the Chevy team wrapped the cord set in plastic, just to make sure no moisture got into its electronic innards. I did the same thing a year ago with the extension cords for our Christmas lights. I guess great minds think alike. ...
Follow msnbc.com's Alan Boyle and Jim Seida as they take an 800-mile "Electric Road Trip" in a Chevy Volt ... and file their dispatches from the road. Boyle is also tweeting about the trip as @b0yle on Twitter.