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Driving a Tesla on an 1800 mile road trip

August 29, 2015

I’ve wanted a Tesla since I first laid eyes on the Tesla Roadster. When the Model S was announced, I was excited, but I couldn’t get over the price tag, and the only one I could even talk myself partly into had a sad range between charges. I wanted an all-electric car for some time, but I also like taking road trips in a comfortable car. My Audi A3 TDI was a good compromise on comfort, luxury, performance, and economy, and it served me well.

But every time I walked past that Tesla shop in Oakbrook Center, I fell a little more in love. Then I test drove one and I was a goner. I did the math, and I could indulge myself in this extravagance. We don’t have kids, we don’t have any desire to get a cottage or a boat. So we decided to do it. This was going to be a treat, pure and simple. It’s a nice bonus that it’s also a pretty green vehicle. I can charge up at work for a pittance (less than $8/mo) and most of that power is solar.

And I love it. Driving it is pure pleasure. But this post isn’t supposed to be me raving about how neat my car is. This is about how manageable it is to take an all-electric car on a long-range road trip.

The rollout of the Tesla Superchargers is what really made this into a road-trip car. Instead of driving 250 miles, then stopping for 8 hours to charge up, we’d now only need to stop for anywhere from 10 to 60 minutes, depending on where the next supercharger was. So, as long as your route included supercharging, you were good to go. The latest updates to the Tesla nav software includes “smart” routing through superchargers. I put quotes around “smart” for a reason, but more on that later.

Normally, I charge to no more than 90% capacity, but before a long-range road trip, you want to get a full charge. So, while I was working on the day our trip started, I let it get all the way charged for the first time since I’ve owned it.  It showed an expected range of 270+ miles, with an “ideal” range of 300. But there’s no way I’m hitting ideal, though I did try for a while.

You do this little calculation in your head that boils down to “I can drive slowly and spend less time at the next charger, or I can drive faster, get to the charger faster, but spend a little longer there.” If the charging stop coincides with a meal break, why not spend a bit more time there and grab a bite? Besides, this car is too fun to drive like a landboat. It’s a performance car.

Bearing that in mind, we begin!

Day One

First Leg: Chicago to South Bend.

Because I was fully charged when I left work, we could hit the road and skip the Country Club Hills supercharger. And, thankfully, the auto-routing software recognized that. It gave us a route (for the whole day’s journey to Windsor) that took us through Indiana, Ohio, then up through Detroit with brief charging stops in Mishawaka, IN (South Bend area), Angola, IN, and Maumee, OH (near Toledo). This is due to the fact that when we left there was one supercharger in Michigan on the route we were taking. We’d have charged up fully in St. Joseph, then driven slowly to barely make it to our hotel in Windsor.

The drive was uneventful and we found the first supercharger fairly easily. Nobody else was using it (there were 8 stalls total), so I parked, plugged in, and we wandered over to the adjacent mall to see what there was available. This only called for a short charging stop, (by the time I snapped this sceenshot I already had enough to continue and it was telling the time remaining for a full charge) but we decided to take in a Flat Top Grill since we hadn’t done that in a while. By the time we’d finished, I had a near-full battery, and we hit the road again.

Second Leg: South Bend to Toledo

The car realized I wouldn’t need to stop in Angola thankfully, since it’s a bit out of the way, and doesn’t have much around it. The drive to Toledo was smooth and problem-free, and we decided we’d use a short charging stop to run into the adjacent Meijer and grab some snacks for the next day’s journey. Again, by the time I snapped this screenshot, we’d already had enough juice to continue on.

Third Leg: Toledo to Windsor

Lots of construction between Toledo and Detroit. But it was late enough at night it wasn’t a big deal at all. I wish the Tesla had the option to add apps to the system. As it is, some people have done some clever things to make the on-board web browser more of a tool. For instance, I use a website designed for Teslas to be able to get a read-only view of Waze. Helpful for finding speed traps and incidents.

The border crossing was a bit slow going, and stop-and-go is a killer on the battery’s range. But I wasn’t too worried with over 100 miles to spare and knowing the hotel I’d booked had a Level 2 charger. In a Tesla, your charging rates are roughly 3-4 Miles Per Hour of charge for Level 1 (standard household outlet, 120V), 18-30 MPH for Level 2 (240V, various outlets), 100-120 MPH for Level 3 (ChaDeMo Fast Charge DC), and 300MPH for Tesla Supercharging. So an overnight at around 20 MPH would do me just fine.

Alas, pulling into the hotel, the one charger was occupied by a Volt. Thankfully, I had more than enough range left to leave it overnight, then drive to the Comber Supercharger for breakfast and kW!

We had a bit of a scare, though, as the 3G signal in the Tesla went away shortly after we crossed the border. I thought I’d read that the Tesla’s included data would work in Canada, and I was counting on that. Thankfully, after a couple of minutes, it seemed to happily switch to whichever Canadian carrier it was roaming with and the crisis was averted.

Day Two

First Leg: Windsor to Comber

This hardly counts as a leg, since it was a half hour’s drive. We left the hotel bright and early and 30 miles later hit the first Canadian Supercharger on the trip, in Comber, ON. Not a lot going on at this charging station, but it had what we needed – a Tim Hortons for some coffee and breakfast. We only needed 10 minutes at this stop, but I was hoping I could avoid a stop in Toronto since we’d be going through at rush hour. As such we enjoyed a breakfast break and let the car charge up quite a bit before hitting the road again.

Second Leg: Comber to Woodstock

The route the on-board nav wanted us to take would have us stop in Woodstock (just northeast of London), then again in Toronto, finally in Kingston, then on to our destination near Ottawa. I was hoping I could employ some deep charges and bypass Toronto entirely While charging in Woodstock, we did some lunch at Wendy’s, had a coffee at Tim Hortons, and let the beastie slurp up all the energy it could. My guess was if I charged fully, I could take the 407 bypass north of Toronto and make it all the way to Kingston for the next charge.

In Woodstock was our first Tesla sighting! While I was plugged in two other Teslas were charging and another one was pulling into the lot just as we were leaving. Up to that point, I was the lone charger at all of our stops.

Third Leg: Woodstock to Toronto area

We drove on northeastward, taking the 407 toll road bypass around Toronto (the 401 through is notorious, and I’ve experienced it enough to know I didn’t want to do that to my range). On a whim, we used the on-board browser to bring up PlugShare and look up other high speed (L3) charging options in the Toronto area, on the off chance I could top up and not have to go to Kingston at all. And we found one! The Markham Civic Center had a new Level 3 charger that was operating free of charge for the rest of the month. So we made our way there, plugged in using my handy ChaDeMo adapter, and snagged a cup of coffee at a nearby Second Cup. When we got back to the car, we were ready to go straight on to Ottawa!

Fourth Leg: Markham to Carleton Place

The rest of the drive was on scenic, twisty-turny rural highway driving at moderate speeds, with a handful of construction delays for the first 90 minutes or so. The drive was unremarkable, except that I got my first taste of what a Tesla will do to warn you if you’re going out of range.

My Tesla knows about two types of chargers. First are official Tesla chargers like superchargers and “destination chargers”, or Tesla-specific chargers that are installed at hotels or other “destinations”. They’ll charge me up at around 30MPH (60 if I had the dual charger option installed in the car). The others are places my car has previously charged. So, for example, the L2 chargers where I work, or my garage (where I’ve plugged into the house outlet for a top-up from time to time). Here, in the middle of nowhere, there’s none of that. So, as I was getting further and further from Kingston, I got a warning that I was leaving the range where I could hit a charger. I dismissed it and went on towards my destination, knowing I would be plugging in to my brother’s house when we got there.

Of course, the car didn’t know that. A little while later, another warning popped up informing us that we were now officially out of range of any chargers. Basically a “I warned you! Now you’re on your own!” message. We laughed and drove on. As we pulled into my brother’s driveway, the car was showing about 70 km of range left.

Plugging into a house with the biggest extension cord I’ve ever used

I’ve occasionally plugged in at my house for a top-up charge. At 3-4 MPH, an overnight charge gets me about 25 miles of range. That wouldn’t cut it for this, so prior to leaving I made sure my brother had an electric dryer outlet, and that it was somewhere usable. The mobile charger that came with the car has about 20 feet of length, and I had a 30 foot 50A extension cord. We estimated that would reach the car. We were close.

I eeked every inch I could out of that setup, and still had to back the car up onto the walkway and nearly into the bushes, but I was able to make it reach. The Tesla is smart about recognizing what it can and can’t draw from a particular charger, but in this case I was fooling it and had to teach it its limits. The car believed I was plugged into a 50A circuit with a NEMA 14-50 outlet. However, I was using an adapter to plug it into a 30A NEMA 14-30 outlet. Unfettered, the car would have tried to draw 40A of current and likely would have tripped the breaker in the house, but the on-screen controls let me drop it down to 26A, and I let the car happily slurp away the electricity for a nice overnight charge.

That charge would get me through the whole weekend, though I’d need to do one more charge overnight before departing on our trip home since I didnt get any opportunities to charge up elsewhere all weekend. A nice thing I noticed is when I plugged in the second time, it remembered from the location that I could only draw 26A and kept that setting for this charge.

The Drive Home, Day one

First Leg: Carleton Place to Kingston

With a nearly fully charged car, we punched in the address of our London Hotel into the nav and let it guide us. And we hit our first bout of what I can only describe as the stubborn stupidity of the Tesla supercharger routing. For as smooth as it went on the drive out, on the drive back it was oddly insistent on us making some stupid side trips. For example, I presumed the charger would route us through Kingston, then Toronto, then Woodstock and finally London. Nope! It said our first stop should be Cornwall! This is the route it wanted us to take. Instead of, say, this. I thought that was needless and crazy, so we changed the destination. This time, our destination would simply be the Kingston Supercharger. “Okay,” said the car, “let me find a route for you… here, first, head to Cornwall…”

Happily, you can remove the charging stops from the directions, at which point it routed us direct to the supercharger.

The Kingston Supercharger is neat. It’s smack-dab in the middle of a “Fashion Mall” with a hotel in the parking lot as well as a couple of restaurant options. There are other food options within a trivial walk, but since we wanted to fully charge in Kingston (in hopes of, once again, bypassing Toronto charging), we opted for a sit-down meal at Boston Pizza, despite the recommended stop time of only 11 minutes. When I pulled up there were three other Teslas charging up and one more joined us not five minutes later. One tasty meal later, we were fully charged and ready to roll out. (And I was the only Tesla left at that point.)

Second Leg: Kingston to Markham

The nav saw we had a full battery and happily routed us through to the Woodstock Supercharger when we punched in the hotel address. Unfortunately, it routed us straight through Toronto, which I really wanted to avoid. So I thought, let’s tell it we’re going to Markham, and that will make it route us up onto the 407.

A side note – I’m a capable driver, and don’t rely on my nav system to tell me exactly where to go. In fact, I’ll often disobey it when I’m sure I know better, and watch it adjust around me. However, the 407 is a weird highway. When you are coming from the west, it’s a no-brainer fork in the highway — keep right to stay on the 401, keep left ot move to the 407. But once you get past Toronto it just… ends. It never hooks back up with the freeway. It kind of turns into the 7 (a two lane rural highway) that’ll take you to Ottawa via some 90 degree turns as it crosses other highways. So, getting onto it coming from the east is not something I know instinctively how to do.

Okay, we punch that in, and the nav directs us there, but not the way I want to go and still on the 401 well into the heart of the city. We erase it and try again. And now comes brain-dead supercharger routing episode 2. It wants us to turn around and go back to Kingston (now about 20 miles behind us) and charge up for less than one minute before heading back on our way. Now, any destination we put in insists on turning around and going to Kingston first, so we turn off supercharger routing again and just continue on, navigating manually that we’d turn off the 401 just past Pickering (Brock Rd, Route 1, for those keeping score).

By the time we get to Markham, I decide it’s worth a 10 minute stop or so for a bathroom break and to top up at that Civic Center charger again. I had to wait for about 10 minutes while someone else was using it, then I was able to plug in and juice up. My phone’s data doesn’t work in Canada, and I didn’t bother buying a Canadian SIM since the Tesla’s data *did* work and wifi was fairly ubiquitous. This charger, however, required a card (which I didn’t have) or an app (which I did) to activate it. Luckily there is wifi in the area, however its signal did not reach to where the car was. So Tisha and I did this complicated dance wherein I plugged everything in, wandered over by the buildings to get a signal, sent the signal to activate the charger, and when Tisha saw it come on she’d press the start button. Worked like a champ.

We grabbed some coffee at a nearby Tim Hortons and a snack to tide us over until supper and make our way to London.

Third Leg: Markham to Woodstock, then London.

The routing was smart enough this time that it routed us to London via the Woodstock charger (in fact, it only asked for a 5 minute charge at Woodstock). However, I have certain needs when I’m in Canada. One of them is Harvey’s. To me, Harvey’s is the best fast food burger in Canada (I don’t count things like Five Guys, which is kind of a step above fast food.) And the Woodstock supercharger is a very short walk away from a Harvey’s, so our supper plans were set. Uneventful charging, got nicely topped up and we were ready to go to London shortly. My original plan had me parking the car overnight at one of a couple of L2 chargers within a mile of the London hotel we were saying at, then riding my bike back to the hotel. But since we got such a good charge at Woodstock, that wasn’t necessary at all. We simply checked in and went to sleep.

Day Two

First Leg: London to Comber

A quick breakfast in London meant we weren’t going to want to eat in Comber. In retrospect, I should have had us wait and just eat breakfast at the charger in Comber. As it was, we sat there for a little bit, but when it was evident we were simply killing time we got back to the car and figured out the plan. We got enough of a boost in Comber that it was now offering us a route that had us drive through Michigan then veer south to the Angola Supercharger in Indiana. That seemed okay by us and we went on our way.

Second Leg: Comber to Ann Arbor

See that up there? Ann Arbor. Not Angola. As we were driving, we used the plugshare page to see if there were any high speed non-superchargers just to avoid an unnecessary side trip (and the Indiana toll road). We found one, a Nissan Dealer in Ann Arbor. However, I noticed another Orange (high speed) marker on the map and hit it. “Ann Arbor Supercharger” was the name. Huh. We punched “Ann Arbor” into the Nav and the supercharger came up as a suggestion, so we hit it. Turns out this supercharger opened the day after we left.

We pulled in and plugged in with the goal of getting us to enough charge to make it to St. Joseph’s and not have to go into any unnecessary side trips. A coffee at Starbucks (I miss Timmy’s) and we were on the road again toward home!

Third Leg: Ann Arbor to St. Joseph

If I drove very slowly, we probably could have made it to home (barely) from the Ann Arbor charge, but I didn’t drive slowly and I wanted a late lunch/early supper sooner than that. When I punched in the destination of home, it came back with routing us through Angola again, which seemed silly since St. Joe’s was on the way. So I had to remove the supercharger stops and it showed us having -11% battery upon reaching home. That clearly wouldn’t work well. At various points on the journey I’d turn on supercharger routing again, and it would stubbornly insist on going out of the way to Angola (which, really, has nothing to offer in terms of killing time while charging) rather than to St. Joe’s. I’m not sure why it gets so stubborn or why it makes such non-intuitive choices like this. This is, I believe, the third software update I’ve had since this feature was introduced, and it’s not really gotten better.

The St. Joe’s supercharger has plenty to offer (and more on the way). We had a nice meal at Moe’s before embarking on the final leg of the journey.

Fourth leg: St. Joe’s to home

An entirely uneventful drive, except a brief period where I decided I’d try to keep pace with a BMW i8 that passed me, and then I decided I’d let him get the speeding ticket rather than both of us. Besides, it may be an electric, but it’s also still a gas burner.

Thoughts and other tidbits

  • It was a lot easier than I thought it would be. If I was completely trusting in the car’s navigation, I would have been just fine, just not as fast and efficient in terms of distance. The brain-dead and stubborn supercharger routing needs some tweaking. If a supercharger stop shows up as requiring “0 minutes”, why even include it, especially if it requires going out of your way or even backtracking?
  • I could have made do with nothing but the Tesla Superchargers on the route, only going off-script for charging at the places I was staying.
  • Sites like PlugShare.com, Supercharge.info, and EVTripPlanner.com are tremendously useful when planning out the trip. And plugshare’s custom Tesla interface for the in-car browser works like a champ for improvising on the road.
  • The ChaDeMo adapter is not cheap (though it used to be $1000, so that’s better), but if you want to do a road trip I think it can be indispensable as it opens up so many more fast charging options.
  • The extension cord was a life saver.
  • So happy the car’s 3G worked so well in Canada. I was able to get map updates, browse, and stream Slacker the whole time with only one or two dead spots that lasted only for a couple of miles.
  • At the Kingston Supercharger, I don’t think I’ve ever heard my car be so loud. When supercharging, the A/C works very hard to cool down the battery, and on this hot day it was working so hard it actually kind of sounded like my car had an engine.
  • There’s something really satisfying about being able to pass a car or truck any time you want to without the car ever struggling. Even at 70MPH, if I floor it, I’m up to 90 in a heartbeat and past whatever I was looking to get around.
  • If I had an iPhone, the app would alert me when my car has enough charge to reach the next destination. For some reason the Android app lacks this ability, but they tell us it will come.
  • Some people notice the car and ask questions (the Canadian border agent was asking me about it after he’d grilled me enough to determine I wasn’t a threat), and people will come up to you at the superchargers to ask about them. We had a bunch of kids waving at us as we’d pass them or they’d pass us at various points in the journey.

Other pics and stats:

  • The first day: You can see where I was charging at work (pink line at ~200V), then supercharging (over 400V). Looking at the grey line, you can see when I really laid on the acceleration.
  • The second day: The supercharger stops are pretty clear, then the constant charge I got once I was at my brother’s place. The app I run to collect these stats stopped communicating with the car midway through the trip home when we hit a dead spot, and it never seemed to recover. So no sexy stats for the trip home.
  • Collection of pics, most of which are linked in this post.
  • The route we took on Google Maps, not including day trips into Ottawa proper.
  • Trip Meter A is the road trip total
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