950 miles in two days. Taking an electric road trip in a Tesla

A Tesla Supercharger across the street from a gas station off Interstate-95 in Newark, Delaware.

In 2013, I drove a Tesla Model S from Washington, DC, to Boston. Back then, the trip was a sensation as we tweeted about our progress and bloggers followed along. Tesla’s Supercharger network of charging stations barely qualified as a network. The car I was driving had 270 miles of range, which seemed like a whole lot at the time. But there were no Superchargers at all in the entire state of New Jersey, which made it an arid electricity desert. We made it through, but only after stopping for a conference call with Tesla engineers to decide whether we should go around or through New York City. (We decided it was best to go around.)

Six years later, eons in technology years, Tesla’s Supercharger network has grown enormously. And Tesla has started production of the new Tesla Model S Long Range, which provides 370 miles of range on a full charge.

It seemed like a good time for another road trip. But Washington to Boston wouldn’t be interesting at all today. New Jersey is now pretty well supplied with chargers. So I decided to take the new Tesla Model S Long Range from CNN’s New York offices all the way to CNN headquarters in Atlanta, with a few side trips thrown in for fun.

With a base price of $88,000, the Tesla Model S Long Range isn’t just a Tesla Model S with bigger batteries. It’s a Model S into which Tesla put every efficiency improvement its engineers could think of. For instance, it has more energy-efficient electric motors as well as improved lubrication and gears. Also, it does not have Ludicrous Mode, a setting that uses a lot of energy to accelerate so fast that it has no practical purpose except to make your friends momentarily incontinent.

The efficiency improvements don’t detract from the Model S experience. It’s still a great car to drive, with powerful performance and an amazing amount of interior space. I covered about 950 miles in two days, and learned what today’s zero-emission road tripping is really like.

Cruising the streets of Baltimore in search of a tasty crab cake.

Day 1

On the first day, I planned to drive from New York City to Richmond, Virginia, a distance of about 345 miles. I had picked the car up the day before with a full charge from Tesla’s store in New York City’s Meatpacking District. It then spent a quiet night in a parking garage near CNN’s New York headquarters.

In the morning, I met photographer David Williams and we took a few spins around Columbus Circle for photos, then headed to the Lincoln Tunnel and out of the city. It was about 10:45 am, just after the morning rush.

About 160 miles into the trip, we made our first — and only — charging stop of the day at an Aberdeen, Maryland, rest stop. I got some work done, looked at souvenirs in the gift shop — lots of t-shirts, mugs and shot glasses emblazoned with crabs — munched on an Aunt Annie’s pretzel and kept checking the Tesla app on my phone to see how much longer it would be before the car was charged enough for us to get going.

I still had 167 miles of range in the battery when I pulled in so it wasn’t a long stop — about 20 minutes. The car’s navigation system strategically planned the charging stops and they were automatically included in my route.

The idea was never to fully charge the batteries at a Supercharger because that would have been a waste of time. Fast chargers fill a car’s battery up to 80% pretty quickly. Then, to prevent strain on the battery, charging slows to a relative trickle for the last 20%. So it makes more sense to unplug with a mostly-charged battery and drive to the next charger rather than sitting around waiting to top off.

Tesla now has hundreds of Supercharger stations in America, most of them with several chargers. They are well-maintained and nice looking. The benefit of good design is not to be overlooked. Tesla Superchargers are just cooler than other EV chargers, many of which look like vacuum cleaners strapped to poles and left to die. Tesla’s, on the other hand, look like something you wouldn’t mind having in your living room. Also, they’re fast. At the most, my Supercharger stops were 40 minutes, which feels like forever compared to pumping gas, but not so long that the respite from the road was unwelcome.

Along the way to Richmond, we made a couple of side trips that took us off our main route. First we stopped for a crab cake at Duda’s Tavern on the Baltimore waterfront. A couple of hours later, in Vienna Virginia, we stopped in to visit my brother and check out his Triumph TR6 sports car. Then we went a couple more hours southward to see another brother in the small town of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia.

We pulled into the parking garage of my hotel in Richmond at around 11:00 pm with 83 miles of range left in the battery.

Then things got ugly. I had selected the hotel in Richmond because it had a Tesla destination charger. (Destination chargers are different from Superchargers in that they don’t charge at particularly high speeds, but they’re great for overnight charging.) When we drove through the parking garage, we couldn’t find it. The hotel staff wasn’t sure where it was, either. The most likely explanation was that someone had parked their gasoline-powered SUV in the Tesla charging space and they were blocking it.

At least, there were two non-Tesla EV chargers there and I had a special adapter tip in the Tesla’s front trunk that would let me use one of those. Only one of the chargers was working, but even that one looked like it had been savagely beaten. I was a little worried about safety, but the damage appeared to be cosmetic. I was able to put at least some power into the Model S and nothing went wrong.

To save on expensive materials, Tesla Supercharger cables are only just long enough to reach if the car is pulled all the way into the space. I didn’t always back in far enough.

Day 2

The next morning, we stopped at a Waffle House for a high cholesterol breakfast and lots of coffee. After charging nine hours, the car had 236 miles of range in battery power. That seems like plenty, but we had now left the heavily traveled Northeast corridor and entered a zone with fewer Superchargers. I could tell right away we’d be cutting it close. The car’s navigation told me I’d have less than 20 miles of range left in the battery by the time we reached the Supercharger station in Burlington, North Carolina.

I wasn’t sweating it, though, because that roughly 20-mile margin remained consistent as I drove. All along, the car’s range predictions had proved accurate. I received warnings telling me to keep close to the speed limit in order to make it, though. (With electric cars, as with any fast-moving vehicle, speed eats up power because of increasing wind resistance.) That only meant I had to keep it below 70 to 75 miles an hour, though, still a reasonable clip.

I had 17 miles left in the battery when I pulled into the shopping center parking lot where the Supechargers were tucked into a far-off corner. This was going to be a longer stop — about 35 minutes — so we got out and walked to a Barnes & Noble on the other side of the mall. I did some work, drank some more coffee and bought some books. In between, I checked my phone and waited for it to tell me it was time to start driving again. The cost of charging the car, about $20 at a long stop, was billed automatically to an account.

I used Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot a lot on this trip. Autopilot keeps the car in its lane and maintains a safe distance from other cars. It can even change lanes if you ask it to by pushing on the turn signal stalk. Navigate on Autopilot takes it even further — if you want it to — by changing lanes for you and taking highway ramps and interchanges to follow the route in the car’s navigation system.

Only a few weeks before I had written an article about Consumer Reports’ contention that the system raises serious safety concerns. CNN has published articles about people who have been killed in crashes while using Autopilot.

So you might think I wouldn’t want to use Autopilot. But based on my own experience, I decided I was safer on a long, monotonous drive using the system than not using it. I was safer, that is, if I used Autopilot the way it was intended and not, as some people have, as a substitute for driving. Autopilot does not make you a passenger. It makes you a less tired driver. I was still driving all the time, but with help from cameras and sensors to keep the car in its lane, maintain a safe distance from other cars and assist with lane changes. My eyes were still on the road, my hands were still on the steering wheel.

After that it was an easy drive — except for Atlanta’s notoriously snarled traffic — to a hotel near CNN’s offices with a proper Tesla charger. It was a little after 8 p.m. when we arrived so, before I plugged the car in for the night, I met some friends and we went out for barbeque.

It was a long drive. We were on the road 11 hours that day, including two charging stops of roughly 40 minutes each. All our stops — except, maybe, Waffle House — were for pure necessity. And, maybe that one stop in South Carolina to take a picture with the giant peach. Our second stop was in a hotel parking lot and we walked five minutes to get lunch at a Whole Foods.

One thing that surprised me during my electric road trip was how often I found myself looking for gas stations. We didn’t need gas, of course, but we still needed all the other things gas stations offered, like bathrooms, beverages and cheap snacks.

One other thing that surprised me: Whenever we stopped at a Supercharger, I would see all the other Tesla drivers just sitting in their cars. There were rarely any easily accessible bathrooms or places to buy sodas or beef jerky. So where else would they go?

Seems like a business opportunity to me. Someone could be filling up more than just batteries at these stops.

In all, it was an easy no sweat trip. Of course, this was in the longest range car with the best charger network. But clearly, the future of electric road tripping has arrived.

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