Living with Technology: Coast-to-coast coasting -- Westporter's tour in an electric Tesla
Published 5:17 am, Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Electric cars are usually considered anomalies that are good for driving around town or as a commuting vehicle.
But Westport resident Michael Staw decided to take his Tesla Model S from Westport to Santa Monica, Calif., and back. Here's his story.
What made you think to do this?
It's kind of a tough question. In a way, I'm not sure. One morning, I woke up and thought, "I need to drive across the country."
I've been following the map of Tesla SuperCharger installations, and the idea of the combination of an endurance challenge combined with a logistics challenge really intrigued me.
How did you plan for this?
The plan, and challenge, was to drive solo, round trip, from Westport to the Santa Monica Pier in eight days, in a Tesla Model S.
The difference between a conventional road trip and an electric one is the planning involved. Route planning takes much more effort in an electric vehicle today. I chose a route that was intended to minimize total elapsed time. That generally meant sticking to Tesla's SuperChargers, which can be more than 10 times faster than the majority of other chargers available.
That route turned out to be around 900 miles longer than the optimal route you would choose in a gasoline powered car. But, the extra 900 miles took a shorter amount of time to drive than the amount of time spent charging on the optimal distance route.
The other challenge in planning was that to complete my time challenge, I'd have to pay close attention to my speed, and the amount that I'd charge at each stop.
It is substantially faster to charge from empty to half capacity, than it is to charge from half to full capacity, since the batteries charge faster the closer they are to empty.
So, to minimize my charging time, I was continually estimating and refining my driving plan to arrive at the next charging station as close to empty as I could bear. My target was a 20 mile range buffer. Sometimes my estimate was better than other times.
Driving the right speed was also a factor in minimizing time. Driving faster will not always make the trip shorter. Due to wind resistance, all cars are less energy efficient at high speeds. There is a point where going faster saves less time than it will take to recover the excess energy at the next charging station.
The calculation of optimal speed includes the distance between chargers, the temperature and payload of the car, elevation change, and your tolerance for an anticipated buffer. Although there are tools to help do those calculations, it becomes quite difficult when the weather changes rapidly, either from a storm rolling in, or a change in elevation. In practice, though, the optimal speed was generally in the mid-60s.
What experiences (good and bad) did you have along the way?
One thing I was looking forward to in the trip was the unpredictability. I knew from the onset that a lot of things will happen over the course of 200 hours.
As it turned out, I chose the coldest week of the year for the trip. While it was great for a challenge, it created numerous problems along the way.
One of the problems was snowed-in chargers. At several of the chargers, I was not able to pull in close enough due to snow banks. I did plan for it, and had a small shovel with me, but to be honest, I really wasn't expecting to use it.
I stopped at a campground for a charge one night, where the weather was -12 degrees. It was one of the longest stretches on my route, and, in retrospect, a bad choice in my route plan. It was about 1 am when I arrived, and when I plugged in, the car wouldn't charge. With the help of Tesla support, we determined that there was a sensor, related to the charge port, that was not reporting correctly. We somehow managed to get it reset, but with very few miles of range remaining, the prospect of a tow truck was looming very large to me.
On a more positive note, though, I can't think of any better way to gain an appreciation for the size, diversity, and beauty of this country than to see it unfold in front of you, with your eyes at ground level. I found it hard to make good time in Utah, as I had to keep stopping to take pictures of the amazing scenery.
I met countless people on the way, and as I passed through different cultures and socioeconomic statuses, I was fascinated by both the differences and the similarities between people. Universally, people were interested in the trip. Some people want to talk about how they were planning to convert their houses to solar energy, and others about their plans to buy an electric car.
Did you really just put your foot in the Pacific Ocean and then turn around?
Yes, I did, although I had an egg-and-cheese sandwich, too.
Putting my feet in the ocean, the point which I thought would be the triumph of the trip, actually turned out to be my lowest moment.
It's a hard feeling to describe, and I know it sounds cliche, but at that moment I could feel how much more important the journey is than the destination.
Was the drive home different than the drive out?
My original plan was to drive the same route home, as I believed it to be optimal. I had it timed so I could pass through certain interesting areas in daylight that I had previously driven through after dark.
But I was behind schedule, by about 4 hours, and I decided to take a gambit. I worked out a route that would save me about 250 miles, at the expense of longer charging, but if I timed it right, I could arrive at a certain charger, at a Tesla showroom just before it closed, and use their charger. That charger is not as fast as a SuperCharger, but much better than my other options.
As it turned out, on one critical leg, a snowstorm rolled in, adding two hours, and ending that possibility. All in all, my effort to make up four hours ended up costing me an additional four hours.
Now that it's over, what were your most/least favorite thoughts on the experience?
Six weeks later, I still think about this trip every day. I don't know if I came back a changed person, but I came back with additional perspective that I didn't have. I feel ready to take on new challenges, and that there's nothing that planning, persistence and some thought can't get me though.
Anything else that I should ask you?
Fuel cost: $0; total time: 200 hours; Charging stops: 58.
Initially, I thought that this trip was going to be a battle against the mind numbing road. I was looking forward to that challenge, and wondering where my thoughts would take me, alone, for 18 hours a day.
My biggest surprise was that I was never bored at all, not even for a single moment.
Monitoring energy, planning route changes, chatting with friends, and trying to get my phone to understand me so I didn't text while driving kept my mind busy for the entire trip. Instead of dealing with the loneliness of the road, I connected with people in a whole new way.
Mark Mathias, a 35-plus-year information technology executive, is a Westport resident. His columns can be read online at http://blog.mathias.org and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.