Back To The Future With Tesla Model S

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In 2003, GM’s EV1 was literally crushed to boost profits for GM and the oil industry. Toyota’s $42,000 RAV4 EV was also discontinued, partly because Chevron bought the patent to its NiMH battery and shut down the battery plant. At the same time, climate change was exterminating entire species and I felt an urgent need to do something about that.

With no affordable EVs left on the market, I did the only thing I could to limit gas use — I got on a waiting list to buy a 2nd-generation Prius. In Jan 2004, I received one of the first few thousand cars produced. I’ve driven that car ever since, but even 42 mpg is still burning too much dino juice.

Fast-forward to 2011 and EVs were back with a vengeance. Tesla’s Roadster was selling faster than Tesla could produce them and their Model S was about to be released. The Nissan LEAF debuted with an affordable price and 74-mile range that made sense to a lot of people as a second car.

Unfortunately, the LEAF doesn’t have enough range for my family because it takes over 30 miles just to get up the mountain where we live (it takes 8 to 10 miles per 1000 foot climb). We could use a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt, but then we’d be burning gas for most of each round trip. Despite the passage of 7 years since EV1, we still couldn’t join the EV revolution.

When the 2016 LEAF was announced with 107-mile EPA combined range, I finally saw our opportunity. I calculated that 101 highway miles would be just barely enough for most of our trips. For trips up to 200 or 300 miles, I could tolerate charging for 35+ minutes every 60–80 miles. Our EV had finally arrived.

Or should we keep waiting? The 200-mile-range Chevy Bolt is supposed to be coming out in a little over a year. The problem is that it looks like Chevy won’t make more than 30,000 Bolts in the first year, so I expect the waiting list to be long. The Bolt also won’t be much better than the LEAF for long trips if Chevy doesn’t quickly build a large, high-powered and reliable SAE Combo charger network across the USA.

Whatever happens with the Bolt, it had been almost 12 years since I got that Prius and I wasn’t willing to contribute to CO2 pollution for another year or more hoping for something better. I decided to lease a 2016 LEAF for 3 years and then buy the best 300+ range EV on the market (likely Tesla Model 3).

I started watching LEAF news like a hawk, which also exposed me to a lot of Tesla news. One day, I came across this Tesla commercial:

It sent a shiver down my spine. In the commercial, the gas station looks like the relic that it should be, while glimmering fireflies usher in a new electric age. It evokes a sense of beauty and hope that we can throw off the shackles of big oil that have held us for the last 100 years.

But there’s something else… This was a fan-made commercial. Tesla, as a company, doesn’t make commercials because word-of-mouth has gotten the company more reservations than it can produce cars.

Yet Tesla’s own customers still make them free, professional-quality commercials. That’s weird and wonderful.

There’s this perception that Teslas cost $100,000 or more. In reality, a base-model Tesla is $70,000, or $62,500 after federal tax credit (if your income is high enough to use the whole credit or if you let a leasing company take the credit). An EV rebate available in California reduces it to $60,000, and many states have a similar rebate or tax credit.

Then I read that a few lucky people had gotten used Teslas for $42,000 to $48,000. I believe those cars were sold to acquaintances of Tesla employees, but I thought I might get lucky and find something in that range if I kept reloading the Tesla Certified Pre-Owned web site.

On 10/12/2015, around 6pm, a base Tesla Model S 60 appeared for $50,000. That wasn’t quite in my dream price range, but it was far lower than any other car on the site. After a lot of angsting (and asking my wife to “talk me out of this”), I realized $50,000 was about what I would spend to lease a LEAF for 3 years and then buy a Model 3.

So, with trepidation, I put a down payment on the Model S.

And then, the wait.

I was more excited than I’d been in years. I spent the first night barely able to sleep, and the next day expecting a call or an email that never came… I distracted myself by doing research and my heart sank when I read that not all 60s come with supercharger access. I’d assumed all Teslas could supercharge on a pay-per-use basis, but in reality you either pay for lifetime charging or you can’t supercharge at all. Frantic, I checked the web listing for my car. It didn’t list supercharging. That would mean I’d have to keep my Prius for long trips and wouldn’t be rid of the gas burning that had become a major reason I hated to go anywhere.

I left a message with the deliveries department asking what could be done. They still didn’t call me by the next day, so I emailed online orders at Tesla Motors. Within a couple hours someone finally called. This might be the first time I’ve gotten a faster response by emailing a company instead of calling.

At first I was told that I would have to pay $2,500 plus tax to add supercharging. That could have broken the deal, but I asked them to check if there might be other cars available with supercharging in the same price range. I got a call back soon after from Gavin out of the Costa Mesa service center who was “almost certain” that all CPO cars now come with supercharging. An hour later he had confirmed that to be the case.

I was ecstatic.

I worked with 4 different people during the delivery process and they were all amazing. Car salespeople have always given me a vibe of dishonesty, but nobody at Tesla gave me that feeling at all. It was weird.

I got a loan with no problem and found the Geico gecko offers comprehensive insurance for ~$1100 a year. Some Tesla owners complain Geico is stubborn about paying Tesla-authorized shops while others say Geico is great. Either way, the price was too hard to resist. Plus, I like geckos.

My dad agreed to drive with us to pick the car up in Fremont to avoid a delivery fee (“up to” $1500) by driving my Prius back. I originally wanted to take the bus to avoid burning as much gas as possible (sort of a symbolic gesture), but it would have taken 4 different buses, and if any were late, I would miss a connection and miss my delivery appointment.

Then something unexpected happened. The first day the car would be available to pick up was Oct 21st, 2015. That’s Back to the Future day!

Time Machine Concept - Tesla Model S - Javier Oquendo Design

So I sent an email about it to Gavin:

I set up with Jennifer in Fremont to pick up the car on Oct 21, 2015, which is Back to the Future day!  That’s the day the Delorean time machine went ahead to in Back to the Future II. It’s also the first date the car will be ready to pick up.  So cool!  I hope you’ll offer a flux capacitor retrofit whenever that becomes an option!

I got this reply back that made me grin so wide, it almost hurt:

This was the single greatest email I have received since working at Tesla! That is truly awesome! I will make sure to request Doc Brown as your delivery specialist day of delivery!

It was an incredible thing to pick up my futuristic car on a special date from one of my favorite movies growing up. The odds of the car being ready on that particular day seem so small, it’s hard not to ascribe some cosmic meaning to it…

Back to the waiting.

At one point, I was moving stuff from my 5-year-old cell phone to a new phone and I was about to move over Gas Buddy… when I realized I don’t need that app anymore. In fact, that app will never taint my new phone. It was a startlingly-good feeling.

I thought it would be painful to sell the Prius. I’ve had it for over 11 years and it’s never let me down. The problem is simply that it burns gas. Over the years I’ve begun to feel more and more guilty driving it as millions of people are displaced by super storms, super droughts, have their homes destroyed by record wildfires followed by giant mud slides from burned slopes and record downpours, and on and on. So even though I think kindly of the Prius, I don’t miss it.

I’ve also come to despise Toyota for continuing to lobby against increasing fuel efficiency standards, supporting the climate deniers of ALEC, producing EVs in bare-minimum numbers only to comply with California mandates, and for trying to dupe people into thinking fuel cells (or “fool cells” as Elon Musk calls them) are the great, clean future of cars. Asking people to wait and wait for fuel cell vehicles (just as George Bush did years ago) is simply another method of slowing down the battery-EV revolution we need NOW.

Budget EVs have low profit margins, so Toyota isn’t alone in dragging its feet. Even Nissan, which has sold the most budget EVs, barely advertises them and doesn’t mind that most dealerships steer people toward their more profitable gas line.

But enough ranting. Finally, the day arrived.

We stayed in a hotel well to the east of Fremont so we could pick the car up early the next day. Hey, I may have to buy a luxury-class car to get the EV range I need, but I don’t have to pay Fremont-hotel prices!

When we left the hotel, my GPS was set for shortest route instead of fastest route. That was a bad idea because we were in a hurry, but it had an unexpected consequence: We ended up driving along a street called Tesla Road for a good part of the trip! Chalk up another bizarre coincidence caused by an incorrect GPS setting.

Despite fighting traffic on back roads, we arrived about 25 minutes ahead of schedule and the first thing they had us do was take a tour of the factory. This is where all Tesla cars are currently produced and the experience was amazing. We signed a non-disclosure agreement, but I think I can safely mention that they treat their workers well and most looked happy. If you go watch this documentary, you’ll see a lot of the stuff we saw on the tour.

After the tour, everything went smoothly and they filled out all the paperwork ahead of time. There was no haggling over the price nor any inflation due to incomprehensible fees that many dealers like to tack on. There was just the price shown on the web site, plus 8% sales tax, plus California registration and title transfer fee.

We went out to the car, they went over the major features, gave me the keys, and we were ready to go. But first, I wanted to double check that supercharging worked. I drove a few hundred feet and plugged in:

Fremont Tesla Factory Supercharger
At the Fremont factory supercharger with father on left, me in middle, wife on right, car behind us–almost hidden! Darnit, we should have stood next to it.

We walked to the Prius, got some stuff, said goodbye, loaded the Tesla, and then… the red ring of death. The ring of light around the charger port turned red when I unplugged it and wouldn’t let me plug back in! On the dash-monitor it said 12V battery voltage low, car needs service.

The situation was ironic because Consumer Reports had just downgraded the reliability rating of Tesla a few days earlier. We showed the problem to the people we’d been working with, they were perplexed and got us on the list to have a tech from next door come look. Disheartened, I went back to their lounge with the free coffee, wifi, and tables with power plugs for my laptop. Jennifer (the main “delivery specialist” I’d been working with) soon came up to me and said she felt bad, then handed me a credit card saying we should go eat wherever we wanted while we waited for the car to be repaired. I took the card incredulously.

We went to Claim Jumper and had some of the best food I’ve had in a long time. By the time we were done, the car was fixed.

The problem was some sort of heating element for the 12V battery. Nobody I spoke to knew what it was or had seen it fail before, but I later found online stories from a few other people that have had the same problem with that part. It makes me worry about reliability, yet nobody complains about Tesla service. As long as the car is under warranty, they fix everything for free and even provide free towing, free loaner cars… and apparently sometimes free dinner.

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What happens when the warranty runs out? I worry about that but at least my car payments will be almost done so I can afford to fix things. The battery and drive train warranty lasts 8 years and those are some of the most expensive parts. Other parts that are going to fail usually do so early in life (due to design flaws or unique defects) or late in life (due to wear and tear) with fewer failures in between. A graph of such failures over time looks like a “bathtub curve.” After 4 years, I should be past the early failure part of the curve and be in the low-failure tub for a number of years. I hope.

After plugging and unplugging the supercharger a few times and letting it charge for 10 mins or so, we got on the road.

The first time I floored the accelerator to test it, the acceleration flipped my GPS off the dashboard and scared my wife — and this is the base model!

Everything was incredibly smooth and quiet. Teller, of Penn & Teller fame, describes it as “piloting a big, stealthy cat.” I can definitely see that. And it is a big car — 2 feet longer than my Prius and 10 inches wider. I’m not really a big fan of big, but the size makes it very stable, as does the weight of the batteries and motor being close to the road.

I wanted to drive through Big Sur on one of my favorite scenic trips to stay overnight with my parents in Santa Monica. It’s a long drive, but Model S can handle it:


Before I knew it, we were in lovely Seaside at the first supercharger. Like the Fremont supercharger, Seaside is connected to a Tesla service center and has a small lounge with free snacks and drinks, TV, magazines, wifi, plus a bathroom. It was comfy and the employees were super friendly.

Supercharging is incredibly fast when you’re below 60–70% charge, pumping in about 120kW to add about 80 miles of range in 23 minutes. It takes about 40 minutes to add another 80 miles of range and gets much slower above 90% charge to protect the batteries. Thanks to the fast, low-end charging, we were able to charge for significantly less time than I originally expected because most of the chargers were about 80 miles apart. Of course, if we had been able to leave earlier, we would have stopped for lunch/dinner and let it charge for 60+ minutes in order to skip a charger or two.

If you’re lucky enough to have a newer Tesla with larger battery, miles are added even faster. Check out this calculator for precise estimates. Tesla is gradually adding power to the chargers to speed up charging time, but only cars produced in the last year or so will support the higher charging speeds.

I originally thought we’d be doing the drive 3 hours earlier, so we didn’t get a lot of time to appreciate the drive along the ocean cliffs during daylight, but I got a gorgeous picture of the car at sunset:

Model S in Big Sur at Sunset

Kinda does look like a big, stealthy cat, right? Just ready to pounce on… a seagull… or something.

I hoped to test the handling on the winding route, but people were driving 35mph on the 55mph road and refused to pull over to let the cars piling up behind them pass. I had to wait forever for a rare bit of straight road that allowed passing, at which point we went from 35 to 80 in maybe 3 seconds as we passed, and that was fun. Handling was amazing for the brief periods I was able to remain at 55 before hitting the next slow poke.

I’m usually impatient to get road trips over with, but I didn’t mind the 25-minute breaks to charge every hour and twenty minutes. I would stretch my legs, wake up a bit, and use the 3G internet that comes with the car for the first four years to research the next supercharger and report the current one as operational over on After Seaside, we were the only car at each supercharger location and each had 8 to 12 charging spots.

We made it to my parents at about 1:30 am.

The Model S is only about 6 inches off the ground, with a very smooth bottom that makes it one of the most aerodynamic cars on the road. Unfortunately, I found this makes it difficult to get past the base of my parents’ steeply-sloping driveway. Hitting the driveway at a 45-degree angle works for going up, but for coming down it forces me to let the rear tire fall off the curb at about half the curb’s full height. Bah. It makes me wish I had the optional package that lets you raise/lower the suspension.

Turning around at the top of the driveway also took extra back-and-forth gymnastics due to the length and larger turning radius (37 feet vs 34.1 feet in the Prius) but I was pleased that it was possible at all.

The first 3 outlets I tried plugging into for charging had the ground pin disconnected (apparently outdoor GFCI plugs don’t need to be grounded) and my dad lacked an extension cord with a ground wire to reach indoor outlets. So we had to plug into a hallway outlet and leave a door awkwardly halfway open with the charger cable wedged under it.

I bought a 25′, 10AWG extension cord for our next visit and highly recommend having one with you if you go to pick up an EV from a distant location. I’ve read that a standard 16AWG outdoor extension cord may waste enough voltage as heat that the Tesla will refuse to charge.

I also picked up this spool to keep the extension cord neat in the frunk. Did I mention Model S has a front trunk? It’s a great place to store valuables that’s hard to break into and not in a location that most thieves expect to look — at least for now. It’s also a great place to store things you always need to have with you like grocery bags, spare fuses, a tire repair kit, etc., while leaving the rear trunk pristinely empty.

So, I’m happy. I feel like I can go places again! In fact, I’m excited to travel. Even after having the car for a month, I still look forward to going out on stupid little errands. We just got back from a party where I gave rides to five people and both people who got to drive it said they were sold.

I can’t wait for the new crop of 200+ range EVs to hit the market and get this revolution moving faster.

If you want to join the revolution now, a LEAF with 60-70 miles of range left in the battery can be purchased used for between $9,000 and $11,000. Used Volts are under $18,000. I just discovered the Tesla Roadster can be had for $38,000! The Roadster doesn’t have the 4-year warranty of the CPO Model S and it doesn’t have supercharging or as much cargo/passenger space, but it does have over 200 miles of range.

If you live in California, check out the various subsidies you can get over and above the federal tax credit. There are dozens of subsidies available, including a rebate for a new EV that is given as a check of up to $5,000 rather than as a tax credit. A recently-added rebate is available if your income is low or you’re willing to retire a polluting vehicle that fails California’s smog check. I believe the second rebate applies even to a used-EV purchase!

Since we brought the Model S home, I got a couple of Back to the Future things to go with it. We’re not allowed to use fake license plates on the front bumper out here in California, but I found another place to mount a movie-replica license plate:


Beyond the movie reference, I now think of the plate as meaning we’re out of time to get off of fossil fuels. Scientists have been warning us about climate change since before Back to the Future in 1985, this year is likely to be the hottest year on record (again), and mother nature ain’t gonna tolerate our BS for much longer.

So, keep an eye on those EVs, get on a waiting list, check out the rebates, and join the revolution ASAP.

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Chris Dragon

I grew up programming on an Apple IIe and now run a software company. Despite a hatred of family camping trips, I've always had a deep concern for the creatures we share this planet with. In respect of those creatures, I spent a number of years working at an environmental non-profit, but these days I just try to live with sustainability and encourage others to do the same. I've even come to tolerate camping trips!

Chris Dragon has 14 posts and counting. See all posts by Chris Dragon