Cross-Country In A Tesla Model S

By Tom Martin

May 23, 2014

Tesla’s Model S is one of those products that transcends the barriers of normal physical existence to become a cultural phenomenon. Perhaps it is a low-grade phenomenon, but it has become a phenomenon nonetheless. With a product like this, a lot of people have opinions about it and many are interested in how it works. A lot of journalists also write semi-stupid things about it, adding to the confusion we’re accustomed to in daily life. The result is that urban myths develop that are simply wrong (bet you’re not surprised) but are also plausible enough to increase confusion further.
When we did our original review of the Model S, we realized that our test time was too short (as it often is at a launch event). And, Tesla has recently updated the details of the Model S, so we thought it would be fun to live with a Model S for more than our standard one-week testing period and both in and outside of our normal daily routine. We procured a Model S and drove it from Austin to Milwaukee, with plenty of time for daily activities at each end. That’s roughly across the county, South to North. Because Tesla’s recharging network is aimed at East-West travel, our route required us to cope with the vicissitudes of recharging for long distance travel away from the support of those charging stations. That turned our trip into an adventure, and we’re all about adventure. 
Here is a summary of what we found.
How Far Can You Go?
The Model S has an EPA range of 265 miles. On this trip we learned a lot about what that means, our summation of which is that getting 250 miles of range is quite doable if you are traveling on highways. We learned that the car’s range is heavily dependent on speed. We tended to leave our recharging points and drive at 70 or 75 mph and then find that we were falling short of our range goal. With that, we would dial back our speed a bit (dropping from 75 to 65 makes a difference) and see if that gave us enough range to make our next recharge. Then we’d repeat the process, ending up cruising into our next stop at around 55 mph. If we had started more moderately, we could have finished with more gusto or gone farther, but the speed adjustment wasn’t bad and the dashboard graphics made it pretty easy to see what we needed to do. Those of you who get bored on road trips might actually find this process to be mildly entertaining.
Where Do You Recharge?
When you are in your home city, the Model S has enough range (for most drivers) that you simply recharge it at home every night. You need to select your home charger based on how far you typically drive, but 120 volt power (a standard wall outlet) adds about 40 miles of range overnight (a 12 hour charge). A 240 VAC outlet, which you’ll probably want to add, increases that by more than 3X. If that pattern doesn’t work for you (you drive a lot each day and/or aren’t consistently at home every day) the Tesla may not work for you.
Once you are traveling long distance, you need public charging stations. Even if you were to stay with friends, they would only have 120 V power so that a full recharge would take about 4 days. Maybe you really like your friends and they really like you, but otherwise this makes for a very long trip.
Public charging stations basically come in two flavors:
. Tesla Superchargers, which run at very high voltage and amperage (375V at 290A is common) to fully recharge your car in about an hour
. J1772 charging stations, which run at about 208V and 24A, with full recharging in about 14 hours.
Tesla Superchargers are well mapped by Tesla, but on our route were only available at the beginning (near Dallas) and end (near Chicago). J1772 stations are much more common and we found them in five places:
. Whole Foods
. Hotels
. Parking lots of major facilities like museums, botanical gardens and stadiums
. Parking garages
. Nissan and BMW dealerships
How Much Range Anxiety Do You Have?
If you are traveling on a known route, it isn’t too bad. That’s because the navigation system tells you how far you have to go and the energy monitoring system tells you how much range your have. Range anxiety is more prevalent when you don’t know how far you have to go or when your rate of energy consumption may change significantly en route.
How Much Planning Is Needed?
On the road, recharging is a much more forensic exercise than it is at home. There are, as you might expect, various web-based tools for finding charging stations. We, for example, made the most use of And, remember, the Tesla has a full web-browser in the dash and 3G wireless is standard, so you have web access much of the time. But, for the most part, you don’t want to take off and then find chargers as you go. No, no, no.
One challenge is that the web tools for finding charging stations don’t do a good job of several important things:
. Is the charging station open to the public?
. Is the charging station accessible at all hours?
. Will the charging station be in use when I arrive?
. Does the charging station actually exist?
If you are low on charge, it isn’t very useful to drive up to your recharging point with 6 miles of charge left only to find that the charger isn’t accessible. Or, as happened to us, find that the charger at the Dallas Museum of Art simply doesn’t exist.
For long distance trips, perhaps our biggest learning was that you really need to use the charging station search engines on the web in advance. We, luckily, ended up using the web to find plausible stations and then called as many of the operators as we could to answer the questions on our list above. For example, our first evening hotel layover was to be at a Marriott hotel in Tulsa, OK (Marriott being one of the few hotel chains to list its facilities with charging stations). But, of course, when we called our chosen stop to inquire about whether they actually had a charging station, the front desk clerk was somewhat confused. This exchange ended with “engineering says we don’t have one of those.” This led us to re-route from overnighting in Tulsa to a stay in Oklahoma City, a change that is much more easily done in a plan than once in Tulsa.
But there is more to planning than that. If you want to make a trip reasonably efficiently, you want to go as far as you can each day. That means you need to do some mid-day recharging. But, if your mid-day recharging takes too long, you will arrive at your next stop late enough that a full recharge may not be complete by the time you are ready to leave.
Some of this complexity wouldn’t be a problem if charging were fast, but J1772 charging is a multi-hour affair, even for a boost. This means you probably want to plan your stops around meals or attractions so that you have something to do while you kill 3-4 hours (fortunately, Tesla offers an app that shows charging progress, so you can extend your museum visit as long as necessary to return with a full charge). In a nutshell, we recommend doing a full route plan that involves transit time, recharge time and activities during recharging, all with time of day shown (since meals generally need to happen at set times and attractions have closing hours).
How Far Can You Go Each Day?
Our total trip was 1300 miles, plus or minus a few mistakes and detours. So in principle we needed to recharge five times. That is, we started with 250 miles range and once that was used up, we had to recharge enough to go 1050 miles. That’s 4.2 charges at 250 miles each. Or if you count the number of times we had to recharge, it is five recharging events, in theory. Also in theory, if recharging were instantaneous, we could travel say 60 mph for 24 hours or 1440 miles. Thus, we could have done our trip in one day.
But, it doesn’t really work that way. The first limit is recharging time. With J1772 chargers, full recharging takes 14 hours. Again using our 60 mph average, we could go 240 miles every 18 hours (14 recharging hours plus 4 hours of travel). That means, theoretically, our maximum distance per day is 320 miles. Our 1300 mile trip should take a little over 3 days.
In practice, we did it comfortably in 4 days. There is some time lost because you don’t necessarily take off exactly when your charging is done (for example, we didn’t get up at 5am if that’s when charging finished). There is also some time gained on the calculation above when you use a Supercharger. But 300 miles per day is a reasonable rule of thumb.
How Much Does Charging Cost?
We don’t know how typical our experience is, but we didn’t pay to charge at any of our stops. That’s right, the literal charging cost for our 1300 mile trip was $0. Tesla Superchargers are by policy free for life. The other chargers seem to be subsidized by the owner/operators. That seems more rational when you consider, for example, that we spent about $90 at Whole Foods on our trip. Our two charges there cost them perhaps $15. Maybe they broke even on that transaction, but since we did an overnight charge, we were about the least profitable charging customer they’ll see (most people would spend more and charge less).
Note that with the extra time required for recharging, and the resulting extra hotel and restaurant charges, our free electricity didn’t save us money. In fact, this trip cost more than it would have in a gasoline powered car. Economy is not the raison d’etre for EVs.
How Is The Car, Apart From All This Charging Stuff?
The summary of the Tesla phenomenon sinks in when you comprehend that by making it an electric vehicle Tesla was able to create a better luxury car than it would have been if it were powered conventionally. That is, we find an error many people make is to say “oh cool, it is electric, but can it do what conventional cars do?”. Then you start to list features and since the Tesla has most of the gizmos you could get, say, on a BMW 5 Series, you conclude “that’s nice, it is almost like a real car.” The assumption here is that being an EV involves sacrifices. In this view, the Tesla equation would be +1 for being a zero tailpipe emissions electric car, -1 for range and -1 for a few missing features.
Then you drive it.
The drivetrain, when compared to big luxury sedans, is a quantum step better. Why? Because it is more responsive, less sloppy and less stressed.
Like a car with a clutch-based transmission, the Tesla responds immediately to adjustments in throttle position. There is no torque converter, as there is in every other large sedan, and thus no slip. In addition, the Model S has a single gear and thus never has to shift. So there is no delay, like there is in every other large sedan, while the transmission computer calculates what it should do and then the gearbox switches gears.
An EV also produces maximum torque from zero RPM. That means that off the line and around town the Tesla really takes off, whereas internal combustion powered cars need to rev up to some moderate or high rev level to really pull. This is not a minor difference.
In addition, the ride and handling combination is something special. The floor mounted batteries help with a low center of gravity and the chassis is torsionally rigid. This has allowed Tesla to deliver good roll control and without making the ride too stiff. The suspension is firm, don’t misunderstand, but the ride quality on bumps is exceptional for a car with sporty tuning.
Despite these descriptions, the Model S is not a four-door sports car. The steering is a little dull and the long wheelbase and high weight make it less willing to turn than a smaller car.  It is luxury car that rewards the driver with responsiveness and the passengers with a comfortable ride. The car is quiet as well, although it is complete BS to say that it is silent and honestly a stretch to say that it is much different from other modern luxury cars. Tire noise, wind noise, mechanical sounds are all present and Tesla has no more magic to eliminate most of these than do other carmakers.
One other area where the Model S is not better than a conventional car is in straight line tracking. It isn’t bad at going down the highway, but there are times when it reminds you of a Porsche 911. It wants to wiggle just a little bit, perhaps due to a 52% rear weight bias.
When you come to features, the Tesla is also a lot like other luxury cars. It is missing some features and offers some distinctive items. For example, you can’t get ventilated seats on a Model S, something that is readily available on just about every other high-end car. On the other hand, the Tesla control system, which is delivered via a 17” touch screen, is unique in our experience (and generally better for those comfortable with smartphones).
Anything Else I Should Know?
The Model S has moderate celebrity value. When you are charging it at a public station, you will find Ma and Pa in their Camry scoping you out. When you park in the nether reaches of a parking lot, you will return to find vintage cars surrounding your Model S. Strangers will ask you questions about the car. People will snap pictures as they pass you on the highway. And sometimes you’ll get more attention from car enthusiasts than you might expect. We were at an SCCA race and were parked next to a shiny new C7 Corvette. The ‘Vette might as well have been invisible.
There is a lot more basic information you might want about the Model S, much of which is on the Tesla site of course. But if you like some irreverent humor with your facts, The Oatmeal has created a cartoon review of the car that does a pretty nice job of combining information with a sense of what owning the car is like for true believers:
Or, if you like to skip to our concluding sentences, the summary is:
For those who can afford it, the real Tesla equation is +1 for the environment, +1 for social currency, -1 for range, +1 for driving dynamics and +1 for comfort. That’s a lot of plusses for a big sedan.