Feb 01 2013

Tesla and the long-distance drive

I have just completed a 400m round trip from Palm Beach to Orlando and back in my two-month-old Tesla Model S sedan. Let me say right off that, with each passing day of driving, I enjoy this car more and more. It is a balanced, smooth, powerful joy to drive, and the new software update (which arrived as I was en route; more about this later) has only improved the car’s functionality and pleasant temperament even more.

I called the hotel (Disney’s Grand Floridian) in advance to learn about charging the car while I sat for several days in a financial conference. The staff were thoroughly ignorant of any EV chargers on-site, and only after several calls (and disconnections) did I find one bright reservation clerk who in turn reached the engineering staff to find out. In effect, nothing: but I could park in the cast parking lot and plug into an outlet used to recharge one of the hotel’s ubiquitous golf shuttles. No doubt it would be 110V, and given the low current available it would take most of my two-day visit to refill the car’s batteries.

Naturally, before I left I set the charge mode to maximum and filled the batteries to full. The car read 268m available when I set off, and during the next 3 hours of 75mph cruising with the a/c on, I burned through 210m of range for the ~190m trip. Lesson 1: you burn about 10% more when driving at speeds over 55mph and using accessories like a/c.

Of course, when I arrived with 40m remaining no one knew anything about where I should go to recharge, beyond a notation in my reservation record that I had an EV. So I drove around asking for directions to the cast lot, and finally discovered it behind the valet and customer parking. It was already dark and the only security guard present had no clue where an appropriate outlet would be. He barely seemed interested in the car, unlike the numerous comments I was used to hearing. Instead, he called the head of engineering for the Floridian to come over and advise.

The top man

This was a different experience. The engineering head was genuinely interested in the car and in trying to solve my recharging problem, and escorted me from the cast lot to the valet lot, a far nicer environment. Here he guided the Tesla to an outlet by the nicest slip available, and placed cones around the car so no one would disturb it. He ensured I knew his name, took mine and my phone number, and insisted that the car would not be disturbed throughout my stay. Lesson 2: if in doubt, go to the top man.

The next morning I checked the charge, and found I had gained about 60m, slightly more than I had expected. Apparently the hotel’s outlets pushed a little more amperage than usual, so I gained about 5m/charge-hour rather than the 3-4 I was used to. I also, to my delight, received a notice on the touchscreen that the latest software update was available, and I scheduled it to install that night.

Later that day, on a 4-hour break, I disconnected the cord and drove the car about 15m to the Disney Downtown area (whatever that is). The Recargo iPhone app claimed that several restaurants and hotels had J1772 chargers here, and so I stopped at a couple of locations. The first location did indeed, and I charged for 15 minutes at a 240V x 30A station for the first time. I then left to explore another, but found it was behind a pay garage gate, so I passed it by.

Back at the Floridian, I plugged back into my slow 110V golf cart outlet and returned for the evening’s events.

But I faced a dilemma. Another 24 hours of charging would only buy me about 100m, and with the 90m now left after the day’s excursion, I would probably not have enough to finish the 180m drive home. Why? 90m + 100m should give me 190m; but I knew from the drive up I had burned 210m on that leg with the higher-than-rated speed and with a/c on. I faced having to find a recharging station before I could get home.

The new update

I decided to let the car charge over the next day without driving it. Overnight the update installed, and the next morning as I approached the car to check it out, the door handles popped out smartly in unison, like soldiers coming to attention as an officer walks by. Another answered prayer: I now also had voice commands and a song initial-letter index, and much more importantly as I learned later, a new and more useful energy graph. I let Ms. Tesla sleep and charge while I attended my conference.

So the last morning I loaded the car with my bags and checked the available range. 207m. That should be enough – perhaps.

It wasn’t. By 120m into the journey home I knew I would be short. Out came my iPhone with Recargo, and I located a potential station at a Nissan dealership in Fort Pierce. Given the competitive brand name, I called to ask if I could recharge, and they graciously said yes. Lesson 3: Nissan dealers have charging stations (for their Leaf cars of course), but it’s courteous to call ahead.


I arrived with 35m to spare. As I pulled into the dealership, two salesmen immediately came out to look, and as I rolled the window down to ask where to charge, they got pretty excited. In fact, as I approached the charging pedestal and got out plug the car in, all the salesman came from the dealership, and within a few minutes so did half the mechanics. “That car is sick!”, one of them kept repeating, and several of them stood and took pictures. I fielded better questions from those fellows than I’ve gotten from anyone else, including queries about the drag coefficient, the charge and discharge ratio, and the metal used in the frame.

I charged the car for about an hour while I walked to a nearby restaurant for a late lunch. On my return and before I disconnected I thanked the lead salesman for his help and offered to throw a few dollars into the coffee fund. “Not at all,” he told me. “You made our day.”

The car had gained 20m. I thought that should probably be enough. It was – and it wasn’t.

I decided to stay on US 1 rather than take the Interstate, for two reasons: I would keep the speed down to ~50mph, and I might find a last-ditch charging station on the older highway that surely wouldn’t exist on the Interstate. This turned out to be wise. As I approached the last 30 miles to home, I could see that the remaining range from the dash was slowly converging on the remaining distance from the GPS turn-by-turn display. I knew I had to keep the speed down, but how much?


The energy graph from the new software update gave me the answer. The new display shows the instantaneous projected remaining mileage as you change your speed while driving. By continuously monitoring this display as you drive, you can immediately see the effect of driving at different speeds, and use it to keep to the optimal speed that provides the needed distance to your destination. So I set the display to show both the GPS route (with needed remaining distance) and the Energy app graph (to show the projected remaining distance) and arrived at home with – hola! – 3m of remaining range.

3 miles to go…

Talk about optimal. I could never be that precise with an ICE gas gauge. Lesson 4: use the Energy app. Trust the car.

The real price of EVs 

What’s the bottom line?

Most people (after ooh’ing and ahh’ing a bit) want to know the range of the battery. It’s called “range anxiety”, and it’s the wrong question. You can run out of electricity just like you can run out of gas. Everyone already knows to check their gauges and refill in time.

The real question to ask is how long it takes to recharge. The “price” of EVs is a tradeoff of cost-per-mile for time-per-mile: it may cost only 1/5 as much to charge the car compared to gasoline, but it takes 8-10 hours to fully recharge from dead empty with a standard 240V outlet. So your driving habits need to change. You should top off the charge every time you park. You should limit driving distances to roughly 225m (to allow for speed and a/c burn). You should track the location of charging stations en route with one of the available mobile apps (Recargo, ChargePoint, etc.): Nissan dealers, municipal buildings, RV parks, etc. are good candidates. You should get a card from ChargePoint. You should slow down and cruise if you think you are short of range. And you should ask every hotel, restaurant, and shopping mall where their EV charger is – and why they don’t have one. Once upon a time there were very few gas stations, too. In time, fast chargers will be everywhere, and “charge anxiety” should become an historical memory, just as cranking the engine from the front of a gas buggy is.