Back in 2015, we bought a 2013 Tesla Model S and purposely purchased it from the Tesla Service Center in Columbus, Ohio, even though we live in California. It wasn’t the closest location to our home in Ventura, but it gave me the opportunity to see how the car and Tesla’s Supercharger network stacked up to the hype when put to the test.
Rolling out of the Columbus Tesla Service Center on December 30th, 2015, after the documents were signed, I was officially committed to the task and some 2,400 miles and several mountain passes away from home. I documented the experience in a few videos and articles and generally found it to be a very pleasant experience. I powered through some really long days of driving and was also able to stop in Las Vegas for the CES show that year.
Fast forward to this year and we had the opportunity to take the CleanTechnica Tesla Model 3 on a road trip from our home in Southern California to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to visit my family for the holidays. While both trips went off without a hitch, this year, we actually had options for where to charge and where to eat.
In 2015, the Supercharger network was robust, but it provided just the minimum charging infrastructure that was required to allow for travel along the key arterial routes. Skipping a Supercharger then was possible but not advisable with the 265 mile range of the Model S.
Today, the 310 mile range of the Model 3 paired with the higher density of Supercharging locations meant that we were able to charge in Barstow, California, instead of Yermo to have more options for food. We were able to zoom out on the charging map and charge for an hour at lunch to skip a charging location that we weren’t interested in.
Driving all those miles in the Tesla was a dream. The electric drivetrain in the vehicle makes the ride a smooth and enjoyable one. The technology that Tesla has built into the car also makes the ride a pleasant experience for passengers. My kids were able to keep their gear charged up in the back seats while my wife was able to play her favorite audio book from one of the USB drives up front.
The increase in Supercharger location density meant that we also had options when arriving or departing town. When we stayed in Kingman, Arizona, we opted not to charge before crashing for the night at the hotel and instead charged in the morning and walked to the nearby “World’s Largest Electric Vehicle Museum” just a few blocks away. Thankfully, it was one of the only museums in town that was open on Sunday and it was great to see.
On the flip side, we found that the drastic increase in Teslas on the road meant that we were running into Supercharging stations that were full or approaching full. To clarify, in the ~14 stations we used, one was full (Albuquerque, NM, which had just 6 stalls) and we were the last slot in another station (Denver, CO) which had new signs up that requested owners keep charging sessions to a maximum of 40 minutes. This was not enforced with software and there did not seem to be anyone at the Supercharger checking on this, so it was more of an honor system than anything.
Don’t read this as an apocalyptic proclamation that all of Tesla’s Supercharging locations are full across the country, but rather, they are filling up as tens of thousands of new owners across the United States hit the roads every month. It also means that empty Supercharging stations with guarantees of full power charges are likely a thing of the past, so build a little more time into your schedule if you’re planning to charge, especially in high-density charging areas like the Los Angeles and San Francisco metro areas.
The Supercharging experience is still seamlessly integrated into the onboard navigation, which means that all you need to do is to type in the destination or use the voice commands to get the navigation going and it will automagically navigate to the next Supercharger along the route. As I said, there may be better options for charging in terms of food or the number of stops, but the system seems to do a good job at minimizing the total travel time
After waiting for the specified time at the Albuquerque Supercharger, we unplugged and headed on our way, only to find that the estimated range crashed precipitously, forcing us to reduce our travel speed to make it to our destination in Gallup, New Mexico. There were no other Superchargers between those two points, so we didn’t have any options to top up the battery. Tesla’s Supercharging map shows that they are working on a new location that they expect to come online in the next 2 weeks, but the dynamic nature of the range estimator was something we struggled with on our trip.
The accuracy of the range estimation was an issue on the Model 3 and the Model S as we contended with a number of variables that absolutely slam the battery. Driving at speeds higher than 65 miles per hour zaps the battery and with the speed limit regularly topping 70 and sometimes even 80 miles per hour, even driving the speed limit was draining the battery faster than it seemed the range estimator expected. As an outsider looking in, this is someplace where it seems Tesla could do a better job. The speed limits and vehicle efficiencies at those speed limits are known variables and it seems could be taken into better account for some routes.
Elevation changes along the route are similarly static and should be integrated into the navigation range estimates. We regularly charged farther and longer than the navigation asked us to and still ran into issues twice where we had to lower the cruise control set point and decrease the interior temps to make to the destination. The lowest we had the car was 20 miles or so of range, but on a deserted highway in temperatures below freezing at -5°C with the whole family in the car, that was cutting it a bit close for comfort.
[Editor’s note: I’ve previously reported that Tesla’s navigation system does seem to take all of these factors into account, and I have gathered some intel that indicates I was not being delusional expecting that. However, it seems like some scenarios still outsmart Tesla’s smart navigation system, such as temperatures dropping quickly or people driving faster than expected for that route. I’m not sure what caused the less than ideal estimates in Kyle’s case, but am now curious.]
Low temperatures also have a detrimental effect on the range of the vehicle, but we really didn’t hit too many stretches of low temps, with most days above 0°C/32°F. We did run into one stretch on the way into Green River, Utah, where the low temperatures, high speed limit, and elevation changes conspired against us to the point that we were really happy to make it to the Supercharger before ambling across the street for some warm food. We were never to the point where it became critical, but it was definitely to the point where we felt we had to manage around it.
The total cost of the trip would have been around $160, but because Tesla had granted free Supercharging to everyone living in the vicinity of the California wildfires a few miles from our house, we did not pay anything for the trip. We had planned the trip before this all came about, so that’s just how it worked out. (Thanks, Tesla!).
If we would have paid, at Tesla’s California Supercharging rates of $0.26/kWh and the Model 3’s efficiency of 3.85 miles per kWh, our cost would have been about $160 compared to over $280 for a gasoline vehicle getting 25 miles per gallon at $3.25 per gallon. These are both California prices to keep the playing field level.
Cost of Supercharging vs Gasoline
|Vehicle||Efficiency||Cost of Fuel||Miles||Cost|
|25 mpg gas vehicle||25 mpg||$3.25||2,363||$283.56|
|Tesla Model 3||3.85 mi/kWh||$0.26||2,363||$159.58|
Overall, the trip was a blazing success. We had a great technology-fueled drive across half of the country and back without running into any showstoppers. It’s clear that the Tesla Supercharging network and its vehicles are both improving but the work will only continue for Tesla as the number of Tesla vehicles on the road only continues to climb.
There continues to be an opportunity for improving range estimation in the car, but this can be remediated with additional Supercharging locations and educated owners who charge conservatively by adding an extra 20% buffer to Tesla’s estimates, just in case.
Having said all that, the Supercharging network paired with Tesla’s vehicles remains the best way to travel the roads of the world, as no other vehicle has a charging network that comes even remotely close to the utopia of Tesla’s 11,000+ charge point Supercharging network.
What have your experiences been on longer trips in your electric vehicle? Share in the comments and let us know if it went off as planned … or not.
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