What it's like to take a 1,000-mile road trip in a Tesla

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In a single word, easy.

This past weekend, I had the great pleasure of traveling from Ontario to Indianapolis (and back) in a Tesla Model S. The car belongs to my uncle, and when he heard that my cousin Gillian and I were planning a road trip to Indy to visit our other cousin, he offered us the car.

I have admired this car ever since he bought it in 2014. As an early adopter, he gets to charge his car for free on the Tesla supercharger network, whereas more recent buyers pay $5 for a fill, but that’s still a great deal compared to the cost of gas. Needless to say, Gillian and I were happy to forego that expense, as well as the guilt associated with burning gas in order to move us from point A to point B, especially for the purpose of pleasure.

We headed out on Thursday evening, meeting up at the supercharger in Woodstock, Ontario, and continuing along Hwy 401 to Comber, a tiny town with the last supercharger before the border crossing at Detroit. We sat in A&W, eating Beyond Burgers and figuring out where we’d spend the night. Our search for a hotel in Toledo was, of course, dictated entirely by the location of the charger (as are food choices, too, I’ve discovered). The next morning, we conveniently plugged our car in before breakfast and hit the road immediately after.

© K Martinko

Conditions on Friday weren’t good. There was snow in the air and the roads were wet, but because the Tesla is so big and heavy, with the battery weighing down the bottom, it felt solid and safe. We made good time getting to Fort Wayne, where we plugged in for another charge and hung out in Starbucks for an hour.

From there, we headed to Indianapolis. We could’ve gone directly to our cousin’s house, but we decided to charge up fully so we wouldn’t have to do it on our way out. There’s a map on the car’s touch screen that shows all chargers in the vicinity, so it was never difficult to find the nearest ones and to compare distances. At one point, the touch screen froze and had to be rebooted, but apparently that’s a symptom of age; my uncle said it will be replaced in the next year. In the meantime, we used my phone to navigate, but it would’ve been stressful if that option weren’t available.

The trip home was pretty similar, although we did the entire journey in one day. The weather was much better, but it still took 12 hours from door to door, which included about 2.5 hours of charging time in four spots.

The whole experience was fascinating. On one hand, it felt like an entirely different way of traveling. Having to take a 45-minute break every three hours or so gave the trip a slower feel. We were forced to stop in places we never would’ve stopped in, to poke around and kill time, to stretch our legs, and inevitably return to the vehicle feeling refreshed. We were both more alert after those breaks and I suspect that if more drivers had to stop for charges, the roads would be somewhat safer.

On the other hand, the journey did not feel much different from traveling in a gas-powered car, which is what makes it so amazing. We made the exact same trip, traveling at relatively high speed in a private metal box, without burning a speck of gas. To think that it’s possible to achieve that kind of travel with so much less environmental damage is mind-boggling. Suddenly, internal combustion engines (ICEs) seem terribly outdated.

Tesla charger© K Martinko – A few times, a charger wouldn’t work and we’d have to try a different bay. We never had to wait for a spot, but usually we saw another 1-2 vehicles.

Being in the Tesla forced me to drive more consciously. Not only did I think about where we’d stop next, but also about how I was driving. I maintained a normal highway speed, but had to keep an eye on the watt hours per kilometre. This digital graph, beside the odometer, shows the rate at which the battery uses power to travel a certain distance, and if we got too far off the optimal rate of 186 for our journey, it would affect the accuracy of the remaining range estimate.

What exactly did this number tell us? As my uncle explained, any object traveling through air experiences drag, but drag increases non-linearly. This means that if you’re going a certain speed, the friction against you is a certain amount, but if you double that speed, that friction will more than double – it will quadruple. So when you’re driving any car, the faster you go, the worse your efficiency.

Tesla dashboard© K Martinko – You can see the watt hours per km to the right of the odometer, reading 163.

What I noticed was that maintaining the optimal rate was difficult because it is affected by external factors that I couldn’t control, such as outside temperature (batteries deliver power most efficiently at 20C/68F) and the direction of the wind. Driving from Ontario to Indiana meant we were heading into prevailing southwesterlies, which worsened our efficiency on the way down, but improved it on the way home. Speed of travel has some effect, but not as much as I’d thought. In fact, sometimes I accelerated significantly and the number dropped, but a difference between 100 kph and 120 kph (62/74 mph) was noticeable.

I returned home with more appreciation than ever for what Elon Musk has done. The car is a remarkable invention and feels like such a thorough improvement over gas-powered cars that it’s hard to imagine anyone considering an ICE if they could afford electric. From the free or cheap charges to the smooth, comfortable ride to the sheer power of the engine (I could easily overtake anyone in seconds), it seems almost too good to be true. Indeed, as my uncle said, “Part of driving a car like this is actually believing it’s going to work,” and he joked that it’s only taken him 250,000 kilometres (155,000 miles) to be truly convinced. He went on:

“It’s now hard to imagine getting into one of those things that sits there and idles, where moving the car is a collateral benefit to this engine buzzing along. I mean, only 1 percent of the power in a gas motor goes into moving the people.”

This road trip in a Model S was one of the most hopeful things I’ve experienced in a while. For a few glorious hours I was able to believe that maybe our world won’t change so drastically and horrifyingly in the near future if we can come up with more ingenious inventions like this one. I realize that electric cars are not a magic bullet solution, nor should they replace the public transit networks, walking paths, and bicycle lanes that are so desperately needed, but they can help.

Katherine driving the Tesla© K Martinko – Yes, I was sad to give it up!

I’m still disappointed that my husband and I had to cancel our deposit on a Model 3 due to a higher-than-anticipated final price tag, and now that dream is even further off, thanks to Ontario’s new premier canceling EV rebates. But even if we can’t afford a Tesla, I am more certain than ever that our next vehicle will be all-electric. After this trip it’s hard to imagine it being any other way.

In a single word, easy.

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