Our First Tesla Roadtrip

Earlier this year, we decided it was time to replace our aging Prius and after much research decided to get a Tesla Model 3. We went into the process expecting we’d get a plug-in hybrid (one goal was to be able to do my commute without using any gas), but none of the plug-in hybrids really fit all of our needs and wants. The Model 3 did, once we convinced ourselves that it could make the trip to the Phoenix area to visit my family. It was the only electric car available at the time that met that distance requirement (this is changing… more on that later in this post.)

I have absolutely loved the electric car driving experience in my around-town driving. I love that I never have to stop for gas – and the Tesla is a very fun car to drive. We had driven it to Yuma and back to meet up with my parents to hand over our kids for a week of spoiling, but we hadn’t done the full trip… until now.

We decided to drive over to Arizona for Thanksgiving and to take the Tesla. It would be our first long road trip and we expected it to be a bit of a learning experience. As it turned out, there was a little more learning than we would have liked. But on the whole, the trip was a success and we plan to drive the Tesla over to my parents again sometime. In fact, I hope we can do some longer road trips with the Tesla, too.

First I’ll tell you our big lessons, and then I’ll tell the story that led to the lessons. We learned two major things, one about how we as individuals need to approach a trip like this and one about what we as a society need to do if we want to make electric cars a viable option for more people.

Lesson 1 (for us as individuals): When starting a long drive, we should ALWAYS ask the Tesla to navigate to our destination, even if we’ve driven the route a bazillion time and know the way well. We should do this because the Tesla will include charging stops in that calculation, and it has up-to-date information about the status of the superchargers along the route.

Lesson 2 (for us as a society): If we want to make electric cars a viable option for more people, we cannot rely on companies to provide all of the charging infrastructure. The infrastructure is not 100% reliable, and it is ridiculous to expect that it can be. Drivers need options if some of the infrastructure is down, and those options should be reasonably convenient.

Given those lessons, I suspect you can guess how the story goes… but here it is. We left early on Sunday morning, planning to drive from San Diego to Yuma, charge in Yuma while we ate lunch, and then drive on to my parents’ house, stopping to top up our charge in Gila Bend so that we wouldn’t arrive at a house with no charger with an almost empty battery. We were planning to “trickle charge” (charge from a regular outlet, which produces about 5 miles of range/hour) at my parents’ house, visit some nearby public level 2 chargers (which charge at about 20-25 miles of range/hour) occasionally, and maybe make the trek over to the other side of town for a supercharge once or twice.

We didn’t bother to map our route, because we know the way. We stopped for a quick bathroom break in Ocotillo. While there, my husband noticed that he couldn’t see the Yuma superchargers in the Tesla app on his phone. We thought maybe they would show up after we passed El Centro, which also has superchargers. They did… but they showed up with a symbol that we later learned meant they were down. Once I saw them in the app with that symbol instead of the usual “4 out of 6 chargers available” type information, I started googling. I learned from Yelp reviews (yes, seriously, there are Yelp reviews of superchargers) and Tesla forum posts that the Yuma superchargers had been flaky, but as late as a few days earlier, four of the eight superchargers were working. Stupidly, we drove on.

When we got to Yuma, we discovered that all eight of the superchargers were down. There is a level 2 public charging station nearby with two chargers. Both were occupied when we got there. We looked on my ChargeHub app and saw a new set of chargers over by the mall on the otherside of town. We drove over there, only to discover that we’d misunderstood the info about the type of charger and we could not charger there. They were a station owned by Electrify America, which we later learned is a large network of charging stations funded by the judgement against VW for its diesel scandal. They had several Level 3 CCS chargers and a CHAdeMO charger, but no J1772 charger. We have an adapter only for J1772 chargers. We could buy a CHAdeMO adapter, but it is complicated and several hundred dollars and would not support Level 3 speed charging. Also, I think CHAdeMO is only used by Nissan, and so it is not likely to be a particularly useful network. CCS is shaping up to be more of a standard, and I think it is compatible with many of the other electric cars on the market. As more electric cars with a range of 200 miles or more come on the market, the Electrify America network should make it possible to do road trips in electric cars that aren’t Teslas.

Even given its limited utility, I might shell out for a CHAdeMO adapter if we were going to do a lot of road trips right now, because as we learned in Yuma, it is good to have as many charging options as possible. There is no CCS adaptor for Teslas yet, although some Teslas in Europe apparently use this type of connection natively. There is a lot of chatter on the forums about a potential CCS adaptor in the future. If one becomes available, I will buy it, even if it is several hundred dollars, because the Electrify America network is the only network to rival Tesla’s supercharger network in scope and charging speed.

Personally, I don’t think the decision about whether or not to provide adaptors should be left up to Tesla. They don’t make their money off of their charging stations (at least not right now), but they also don’t have a strong incentive to let us charge quickly at a competing network. I think regulations requiring adaptors and a certain level of interoperability are reasonable. And yes, I think they should go the other way, too: Force Tesla to allow other electric cars to provide adaptors that will let them onto the Tesla charging network.

After about an hour of trying to get a charger that it turns out had the wrong type of connection for us to work, we gave up and went back to the public charger. We had to wait a long time for our turn on the charger – one of the two Teslas there when we pulled up the first time was gone, but another frustrated Tesla drive had just pulled up and started charging. We waited until the second of the two original Teslas came back and then we started charging. The driver of that Tesla came back at 5 p.m. We were now about 4 hours into our prolonged stay in Yuma, and we had just started charging.

In a society that was serious about decarbonizing, there would have been no wait. There would have been plentiful chargers and we could have plugged in right away. Then, even at level 2 charging speeds, we could have been on our way after a long lunch. If we want to encourage more electric cars (which I think we should!) then we should subsidize electric car charging stations, either by offering private companies incentives to build out their networks and make them accessible to all electric cars, or by just building more government-owned stations. The chargers we ended up using in Yuma belong to the City of Yuma. There is no reason we couldn’t have charging stations at every rest area, particularly in sunny parts of the country like California and Arizona!

I looked on the Tesla app and discovered that there were superchargers in Quartzsite – 14 of them! Quartzsite is much closer to Yuma than Gila Bend. We’d only need a couple of hours of charging to get enough charge to get to them. But the app had the same “chargers down” symbol on the Quartzsite listing. However, it also said that X out of 14 chargers were available (the dead Yuma chargers provided no info in the app), and the value of X was changing every now and then. The other Tesla driver suggested we call the Tesla service line and press the option for an emergency so that we could talk to a person even though the regular support hours were over. I was desperate, so I did this. A nice man assured me that there were people charging in Quartzsite as we spoke… so we decided to try for it. We charged enough to get from Quartzsite back to Blythe if needed, and then left Yuma. By this time it was after 7:30 p.m., and we still had an hour and a half to drive to Quartzsite, then charging time, and then about two hours more to get to my parents’ house.

This plan worked, and we drove into my parents’ driveway a little before 1 a.m.

We had made several mistakes. Not letting the car calculate a route with charging stops. Not turning around and going back to El Centro as soon as we saw the outage in Yuma (we had enough charge to make it back to El Centro before we wasted miles driving around town to try out the other charger). Failing that, we would have saved several hours if we’d just waited at the public charger the first time.

But, as I said to the kids, it wasn’t even close to the worst car-related travel problem I’ve ever experienced. That distinction probably goes to the two days my family and I spent in Las Vegas, New Mexico when I was a kid, waiting for a car part to arrive. One advantage electric cars have over gas cars is that there are very few parts to break. The overall cost of maintenance is much, much lower and many electric car drivers report that the only maintenance they ever do is to add air to their tires and add windshield wiper fluid. Those are certainly the only two maintenance tasks we’ve had to do on the Tesla so far, but we’ve only had it about six months.

The next morning, we got up and drove to one of the charging stations near my parents’ house. My parents live in Mesa and all of the Tesla superchargers in the Phoenix area are on the other side of town. So we went to a Blink network station nearby. 20 minutes and a phone call to the Blink support line later, we learned that this particular station was down. Luckily, there was another one a few blocks away, and that one worked. We plugged in and walked back to my parents house. Since we’d depleted our battery so much the night before, it would have taken all day to charge up on the level 2 charger. Therefore, once we’d charged enough to get a decent range, we drove over to Scottsdale and supercharged. We spent about 45 minutes walking around an upscale mall while our battery filled up.

We were able to easily get by with just trickle charging for the next several days. The day after Thanksgiving, though, my husband and I took advantage of my parents’ offer to watch the kids and made a trip down to Tucson. We charged twice while there: Once at the Tesla superchargers at another upscale mall and once at a ChargePoint station in a garage at the University of Arizona. The ChargePoint station was only a level 2, but while we charged we ate a nice breakfast at a nearby restaurant, visited the gallery at the Center for Creative Photography at the U of A, and wandered around the campus a little bit. That was frankly nicer than wandering around yet another upscale mall. There is a lesson here, too. We need electric car charging stations all over, not just in the upscale parts of town. Drivers should be able to integrate charging into their trips, much like gas car drivers just stop at a gas station and get gas without planning a trip around where the gas stations are.

Our drive back to San Diego was uneventful. We decided to stop and charge in Gila Bend, even though the Tesla assured us that the Yuma chargers were available. Then we skipped Yuma altogether and drove on to El Centro, where we charged while we ate lunch. Or more accurately, we charged while we ordered lunch: The car notified us it was done charging right around the time our meal arrived. I went out and moved it because it is a busy charging station, so we would have had idle fees if we’d left it plugged in.

The drive from El Centro home has some mountains, and the Tesla really shines on those curvy mountain roads. It will accelerate as much as I want it to even while climbing, and the low center of gravity provided by the weight of the battery combined with the motors on both axles means that it absolutely hugs the road. I am not a big car person, and even I think the Tesla is really fun to drive on mountain roads. Also, I didn’t mind as much when a slower car pulled in front of me and I had to slow down – in the Prius I’d get annoyed because I’d lose my momentum and the car would struggle to regain it. The Tesla does not struggle to regain momentum.

Overall, the road trip experience with the Tesla was pretty good, and now that we’ve learned our lesson about not blindly counting on superchargers without letting the car tell us their status, future road trips will be even better. For electric car road trips to be great for everyone, not just people who can afford a Tesla with a 300 mile range, we need better charging infrastructure. The technology is there. We just need to figure out how to deploy it.

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