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3,641 miles on 0.0 gallons of gas – Part Two

In the first part of this two-part series, I covered the planning and car prep required for our trip; today I'll cover the driving (briefly) and the charging (in lots of detail).

Driving the route

For a trip of 3,600+ miles, it's amazing how little trouble we had—or even saw—on the roads. We had no near miss-accidents, no flat tires, and no mechanical issues with the car. We didn't spot any drivers that looked like they were having trouble staying on the road, and we didn't even drive past any recent accidents. There was some road construction, but only on 50 or so of the 3,600+ miles we covered.

Aside: Bugs
So if we had no mechanical or tire issues or accidents, what was the most annoying car-related issue? Probably bugs. Not in Tesla's software, but the real kind…so…many…bugs!*To really see the splatter, click the image, then click the icon at the top right of the window that opens for the full-size version

Splatter zone

I did my best to ignore the bugs on the front (though I did scrub them off once, in Colorado), but the windshield was another matter—it's hard to drive when looking through a layer of bug detritus.

For that problem, we packed a can of foaming window cleaner and paper towels, because there aren't typically squeegees and water at Tesla Supercharger stations. This stuff works great, and is so much neater than the squeegee/water solution that we've switched to it in our other (gas powered) car as well.

Given that our route was through the wide-open western USA, Tesla's Autopilot feature was most welcomed on many stretches of the route…

I think the last corner was about 20 miles ago…

I think Autopilot has gotten something of a bad reputation because a certain percentage of Tesla drivers are abusing the feature, trying to make it something it's not: It's not (yet) a full autopilot, as one might find in an airplane. (Tesla has committed to rolling out Full Self Driving by the end of 2020, but we'll see.)

I consider Autopilot a driver-assist feature—when it's active, I don't worry about veering out of my lane if I reach for a water bottle, and I don't have to work my foot on the gas pedal to keep up with the ebb and flow of traffic. In that role, Autopilot was a very nice workload reliever on the trip, freeing the driver to focus on the road and traffic ahead, watching for trouble.

So much for the driving part…what about the charging part? How does this whole "no gas" thing work in practice? Can an electric car replace a traditionally powered car for long road trips? Obviously, we completed our trip, so the general answer is "yes," but it's definitely not the same as using a gas-powered car.

About charging

I kept my original planning spreadsheet current during our trip—recording actual mileage, times, and en-route charging stops. (I didn't record any data about the charging we did in our destination cities.) At the end of the trip, here's how our actuals compared to the original plan:

Plan vs ActualPlanActualDelta (%)
Miles driven3,2703,641+371 (+11%)
Enroute charge stops1725+8 (+47%)
Driving time (d:hh:mm)2:02:402:07:58+5.30 (+10%)
Charging time (d:hh:mm)0:09:050:15:13+6.13 (+68%)
Total time (d:hh:mm)2:11:452:23:11+11.43 (+19%)

As you can see, my estimates were low—quite low, in a couple of cases—across the board. The extra mileage (and driving time) is easy to explain: In my plan, I didn't include any miles for the two days we spent visiting family in Colorado. I also didn't include any "running around" miles or time in each of our destination cities.

Because of the added mileage, we did need additional charging, but that doesn't account for all of the additional stops (+47%) or charging time (+68%!) beyond the plan. Note, too, that there were at least 11 additional charging stops that aren't reflected here: We charged in each destination city, for some amount of time (more on that later).

Before I dig into the causes of the extra charge time, though, here's a more detailed look at our charging stats:

Enroute charging onlyhh:mm
Total time15:13
Average charge time0:36
Longest charge time1:07
Shortest charge time0:08
Driving vs. Chargingd:hh:mmSplit
Drive time2:07:5879%
Charge time0:15:1321%
Total time2:23:11

On average, we sat at chargers for 36 minutes, with a max of just over an hour, and a low of under 10 minutes.

To better visualize our charging stops, here's a histogram with all 25 stops grouped into roughly 10-minute buckets:

Most of our charging stops fell into the 28 to 39 minute bucket, and fully half of them were between 28 and 49 minutes.

The long stop was when we fully charged the battery before heading into the possible "charging gap" in Pullman, Washington (covered in part one). While Superchargers can do partial charges at a high rate, as the battery gets closer to full, the charge rate slows way down to protect the health of the battery. Depending on the starting charge level, a full charge can take more than an hour, as it did for us.

We had two stops of 10 minutes or less. One was on a day when our plans changed and we had to find a new town and hotel for the evening's stay; we were near a Supercharger so just stopped there to make the call. The other was an unplanned stop where I wanted just a bit more charge to feel comfortable about having a sufficient buffer to reach our destination.

Why so much charging?

Of our time on the road, 79% of it was spent driving, and 21% charging. In my original plan, that ratio was 85% to 15%. So why did we stop so much more often, and for more time, than I had planned?

There are two reasons for this disparity. The first—and by far most important—is this…

1) Tesla's trip planner assumes that each trip starts with a fully charged battery.

There's no provision for starting a day with a partially-charged battery, so all the estimated charge times shown in the planner are inaccurate if you don't start with a full charge. And for us, we only ever started with a full charge on two days of the trip—the two days where our hotel either had or was right next to a charger. (On those two days, though, our actual charge times were within five to ten minutes of the planned times.)

Consider our first day as a typical example—we stopped in Ashland, Oregon, after 318 miles of driving from Portland. As seen in the map at right, there are four destination chargers in Ashland. All four are for customers only—one is at a bed-and-breakfast (which we had no interest in), and the other three are at boutique hotels which were quite expensive (and I wasn't certain of their COVID preparations). So that meant no charge for us in Ashland.

Before arrival, we charged in Grants Pass, about 45 miles away from Ashland, but we didn't fill the battery, so we arrived with much less than a full charge. According to the plan I built with Tesla's tool, we were to drive to Red Bluff, California in the morning—a distance of 166 miles—before charging. And that would be the only needed stop for the 300 mile day.

But we didn't have the charge for a 166 mile drive (with a safe reserve), so we instead drove to Mt. Shasta, which was only 75 miles away. And we also charged in Chico, so that's an added stop that wasn't in the plan. Instead of the planned one stop for 45 minutes, we used two stops for an hour and sixteen minutes. Do that every day for 11 days, and you can see how we went so far over the planned number of—and duration of—charging stops.

Why not fully charge every night?

Ideally, we would. And honestly, in non-COVID times, we would have, because I would've chosen hotels that either had a destination charger, or were within walking distance of a Supercharger. Then we could check in, plug in the car, and relax in the room. In the morning, we'd have a full battery to start the day.

But due to COVID, I had booked only two hotel chains for the entire trip—two that I felt were taking the pandemic seriously based on my research. Unfortunately, only one location had a destination charger, and one was next door to a Supercharger. The others were all anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes away from a Supercharger.

After driving and walking around campuses for ten to twelve hours, we weren't really in the mood to sit in the car for another hour at a Supercharger to wait for a full charge. Instead, we'd charge just long enough to get to the next day's first Supercharger stop with a good reserve, then call it a day.

We decided that it was better to be charging during the day, on the way to the next city, than it was to sit at a Supercharger in the dark for an hour before going to our hotel room.

This was, by far, the biggest cause of the extra charging time (and extra stops). Had I been willing to look at other hotels, though, it wouldn't have been as big of an issue, as we would have started more days with a fully charged battery.

The second reason for the disparity in charge time is more personal…

2) I'm a chicken conservative planner

Running out of charge isn't like running out of gas—you can't just walk to the nearest station and lug a container full of electricity back to the car (ah, the memories of long cold walks on snowy high school days…). Some AAA trucks apparently have onboard chargers now, but I didn't want to risk that. My number one goal was to not run out of charge.

So most of the time, when the display in our car said it was OK to head to leave the Supercharger and head for the next one, we didn't. Instead, we'd wait. How long? Typically we'd leave only when the car showed an estimated remaining range on arrival at the next Supercharger of least 90 miles—or about 33% of a full charge. That's the minimum cushion I felt we needed to drive the next leg without range anxiety. Tesla seemed willing to let us go when that figure was only 40 to 50 miles, if I recall correctly.

On one particularly windy stretch of Nevada, even that 90 mile buffer was beginning to seem like not enough. We drove into a headwind pretty much the entire time, and I was beginning to wonder just how close it was going to be—so much so that we spent more than a few miles drafting a semitruck. You can clearly see the impact of drafting in the car's consumption chart…

Once I moved behind the truck, the consumption line dropped closer to its average, so yes, drafting works!

At the time Kylie snapped this photo, we were about 60 miles from our destination, so we had only a 34 mile cushion based on the projected 94 mile range. When we arrived at the charger, we had 30 miles left—and it would've been less without the rolling windbreak in front of us. That's too close for my comfort level.

My conservatism added some time to our charging, but the big culprit was not starting each day with a full charge.

Isn't charging boring?

I don't find it boring, mainly because it seems there's always plenty to do. First off, on average we drove about 115 miles between Superchargers, which would take between 90 and 120 minutes depending on speed limits and traffic. After that much time sitting in one spot, it was nice to have a forced break to get out and stretch.

Tesla Superchargers—at least those along the interstates—tend to be located primarily at hotels, and secondarily at gas stations. Occasionally they're just in some mall's parking lot. But there's almost always something nearby, be it a restaurant, gas station, hotel, or gigantic red statue of a Sumo wrestler…

When we arrived at a charger, after plugging in and stretching my legs a bit, I'd get out the window cleaning spray and clear the accumulated bug parts off the windshield. We'd also use the restrooms—and as most of these were in hotels, they were always very clean and very deserted. That's a most welcomed change from the typical gas station restroom.

We'd also empty our trash, refill our drinks, and switch drivers. One charging stop a day was the lunch stop; we'd make something from the cooler and then eat it in the car or sitting outside near the car.

As our average stops were only 36 minutes long, after handling the routine stuff, there were usually only 20 to 25 minutes left—much less if it was the lunch stop. Still, what to do for that time? There's always the iPhone or the iPad or a Kindle or even a (gasp!) real book. But Tesla tries to help out a lot here…

Tesla's in-car entertainment options

Yes, Tesla has in-car games and television, usable when in Park. So what's available? There are many more games than fit in the above screenshot, and they include games from the early 1980s up through today; here's the full list of titles:

2048AsteroidsBackgammonBeach Buggy Racing 2Centipede
ChessCupheadFallout ShelterLunar LanderMillipede
Missile CommandGravitarStardew ValleySuper BreakoutTempest

Most of these games can be played using the steering wheel, brake pedal (never the gas pedal!), and the buttons on the steering wheel. Some require a USB game controller, which can be plugged into the USB ports in the center console. And yes, you will get some odd looks, sitting there in your car, hands on the wheel, staring intently at the center display.

Some of the games translate well to the car, some not so much. Beach Buggy Racing is really fun, and Lunar Lander is surprisingly controllable with a steering wheel. Asteroids was tougher for me, and Missile Command requires a level of dexterity I no longer possess.

If you'd like to see the games in action, YouTube has lots of videos.

On the streaming movie/TV side, Tesla offers Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and Twitch—and there's a selection of Tesla Tutorials that explain the various features of your car. Kylie and I primarily passed the time by watching Netflix, though we did do a bit of gaming (we didn't bring a game controller with us, though).

Netflix and Hulu require your own subscription, of course, but the connectivity comes via the Tesla's built-in LTE cellular connection—you need Premium Connectivity ($10/month) for the video services. (As with Supercharging, earlier-build cars like mine get free Premium Connectivity for life, so we didn't pay for our entertainment or our electrons.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that Kylie got me hooked on The Great British Baking Show on Netflix, and we watched many episodes while charging. Highly recommended if you like cooking shows!

As we drove through the west, including the vast empty portions of some states, I was impressed by the wireless carriers' networks—I don't know which carrier(s) Tesla uses, but we were never without an internet connection at a Supercharger, and it only dropped out for a couple minutes total on the interstates. (The few back roads in nohweresville that we used are a different story—our phones and the car all lost connectivity for a while on those roads.)

Having TV and in-car games available definitely helps make the charging sessions go quicker—several times, we held off departing until the show we were watching ended.

If you're the kind of person who hates not making definitive forward progress during every minute of a road trip, an electric car is not for you. You will have to sit and wait, anywhere from one to four times a day, if you want to travel via electricity.

Caveats and comparisons

I think our 3,641 mile road trip proved that long-distance trips in an electric car are possible, but there are a number of important caveats to that statement.

First and most important, I can only speak to the experience of making the trip in a Tesla, which can take advantage of their extensive Supercharger network. (Tesla has said they're open to sharing, but nobody is doing so as of today.)

To see what it might be like in another electric car, I used A Better Route Planner, which lets you choose from a number of electric vehicles, and calculates routes and charging stops just like Tesla's tool does. I chose a 2019 Chevy Bolt as the model, a car with a range of roughly 250 miles, or just 40 less than mine. I used one of our most challenging days, when we drove 550 miles from Reno, Nevada to Salt Lake City, Utah.

In the Tesla, the day required almost eight hours of driving, and just over two hours of charging at three Superchargers, for a total duration of nine hours and 53 minutes. How would the Bolt do? According to A Better Route Planner, as seen in the image at right, it would take just over twelve hours total, with two hours and 18 minutes of charging at three chargers.

But look closely at the image*or just click it to see the bigger version!—for the first 165 miles, you're restricted to 62mph, and for the last 211 miles, you can't exceed 50mph…all of this on an interstate with a 75mph speed limit. That's scary!

The good news is that with so many major manufacturers moving to electric vehicles, the charging situation will improve for everyone, Tesla included (as they can use public chargers, too).

Another caveat that is while yes, you can do the trip in an electric car, it will take longer—so if time is critical, electric won't be your best option.

Consider that same 550 mile drive in a car like the Toyota Camry Hybrid. At 47mpg highway, and with a 13+ gallon gas tank, the Camry can make the trip without stopping for gas. And at an average of 70mph, it'd cover the distance in just under eight hours—more than two hours ahead of the Tesla, and four hours ahead of the Bolt.

I think it's safe to say we won't see anyone breaking the Cannonball Run coast-to-coast record in a pure electric vehicle anytime soon.

Another caveat is that you will spend much more time planning a trip like this in an electric car than you would in a gas-powered vehicle. You definitely don't need to be as detailed as I was, but you do need to have a good sense of which chargers you're going to use in which locations on which days.

Finally, you have to hope that the charging infrastructure isn't broken, otherwise you could wind up stuck—and we nearly had this happen to us. As we were charging in Washington, we put in The Dalles, Oregon as our destination—our very last Supercharger of the trip. When we did, we saw this…

Not knowing what that actually meant, I called Tesla. They checked in their system, and found that three of the five chargers were offline. That was better than not working at all, of course, but not great—on our trip, there were generally at least two vehicles at each charger we stopped at. In checking the map, we could reach the charger in Sandy, Oregon, if we had to, but it'd be close. Worst case, we figured we could get a hotel in The Dalles, so we headed out.

When we got to the charger, there were two cars charging and one waiting. Thankfully, the two charging finished within 10 minutes, so it wasn't much of a delay.

Wrapping it all up

I'm glad Kylie and I took this trip—we got to spend a lot of time together, she got to see a lot of the west and a number of universities, and we did it all in a car that uses no gasoline. We had no real issues with the car or charging (The Dalles' Supercharger being the only near-issue), and I wouldn't hesitate to take another long drive in our Tesla.

7 Comments

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  1. I think it is really cool that people can do this with an electric car. People like you willing to deal with the range anxiety and all of that help push towards a future for people like me, who wouldn't be able to stand it, to eventually do it.

    I think my biggest concern is chargers being in use. If there are two chargers at your hotel and it is expected to leave your car in overnight, then what happens when they are full? Even super chargers on the road could have this issue.

    I would consider an electric car as my family's second car (for in-town and commuting). But the thought of having to (a) do this much planning and (b) deal with anything that comes up, is very off-putting.

    I do think electric is the future. Hopefully a combination of better battery technology (to allow fast 100% charging), a better network of chargers, and general behavior changes will make this better.

    Also, I hope (eventually) we move to universal chargers. Imagine if for your Subaru, you had to find Subaru-only gas stations!

  2. We didn't have any capacity issues when traveling, except for the last one which had three chargers out. But it's definitely a concern as more and more electric cars hit the road. In the hotel example, if there were just two chargers and they were full, you may be out of luck for the night. I'd probably ask the front desk to contact the drivers to see if they could move their cars when done, but if they're empty, it's going to be all night. So yea, you could wind up chargeless in that case.

    The good news is that towns like Pullman seemed to be the exception—there were generally multiple charging options in all but the smallest towns we were in. And again, as more cars get on the road, the situation should improve.

    Around town, an electric is (to me) a no brainer—no maintenance needed to speak of, and range anxiety isn't an issue. But yes, for long distance travel, it's a bit of living on the edge right now :).

    BTW, the chargers are (generally speaking) universal. I can use any public charger, though I may need an adpater to go on the end of the charging cable to fit into my car's connector. Tesla's chargers could be used by other cars, if their manufacturers are willing to chip in to fund the cost of the system.

    What's really needed is a huge jump in battery tech that would enable, say, 250 miles of range to be added in 10 minutes or less. I imagine they'll get there, I just don't know if that's 5, 10, 20, or more years in the future.

    -rob.

  3. Rob, I find your article fascinating and appreciate your amazing attention to detail and record keeping. I have a Prius (used BTW) that, I believe, would have the best of both worlds. Any gas station will do ;-) and the battery recharges on coasting and braking. Around town I am always on ECO mode which is battery mostly, but I don't think it would work on the freeway quite as well. For short freeway runs, across town, I have no problem with ECO.
    Thank you so much for sharing the meticulous research you do.
    PS: The Prius has a tiny gas tank : 11.9 gals. Grrrrr.

    1. Hyrbrids are great—our other car is a RAV4 Hybrid. But to be completely honest, we wanted to try this one in the electric as a bit of an adventure of sorts .... and my daughter really wanted to drive the Tesla (she's not normally allowed).

      -rob.

  4. Many thanks. Can you remember the exact position where you took this picture "last corner…"? I am planning for next vacation in the US (I am German) and would love to see this with my eyes. Many thanks for your cooperation.

    1. Christian:

      It doesn't look anything like my photo when you click the link, but that's where I snapped the photo.

      It's just before Exit 205 on Interstate 80—headed eastbound—in Nevada. (Exit 205 goes to Pumpernickel Valley, where there are no services, according to the sign.)

      -rob.

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