Tesla time: Long distance edition

Long distance driving that doesn’t turn you into a felon.

Long distance driving is no fun. Trapped in a small enclosed space in a seat of questionable comfort dealing with other people doing the same thing, for hours upon end. For a single hour it’s not so bad. After seven hours it seems less like an interstate highway and more like Fury Road on the way to Gastown. Add now the need to perform many small adjustments to your course, your speed and adjusting to people cutting you off, merging without signaling, riding your bumper and you have a bad start to your vacation. After seven hours you finally get out of the car and are physically and mentally drained even though you’ve only been sitting in a seat, doing ten over the speed limit.

So I have a Tesla…

I didn’t get the Model 3 with the intention of taking it on our cross country trips. In fact last year we took the same trip to Florida and took the Odyssey over the Model 3. As the pandemic is winding down, we took the opportunity to essentially “do-over” last year’s vacation. This time we took the Tesla.

Taking the Tesla over the (now CRV) means some different choices go into planning and packing. One, we won’t be taking my daughter’s bike. Two, we take a little more care in packing what we need and leaving enough space for souvenirs. Interestingly enough, the Model 3 has quite a bit of storage space, even though it’s a small sedan. What would have been singly packed into the trunk was divided into the frunk, the area below the trunk, and the trunk proper. No problems packing at all.

Having to stop and charge is a superpower

The most contentious part of a road trip ends up being when you decide to stop for food, pit-stops, etc. Last year we would go too long in-between stops and wait too long for food, making the trip a little more rage inducing than it really needed to be. When you decide to stop is entirely subjective and up to the driver’s tolerance for running out of gas. With a Tesla, the car decides where you stop, or more to the point the routing system built into the navigation tells you where you’re going to stop.

This turns out to the be one of the best advantages of taking the Model 3 on a road trip as it ensures that we are going to be taking breaks every 2-3 hours, will need to be there from 10-40 minutes, and in most cases is near a lot of interesting things. Without doing anything special, the car gave us our lunch stop and a dinner stop on its own as well as ensured we would always stretch our legs before we got angry.

This worked out really really well. It’s impressive how Tesla turned a perceived disadvantage of having to charge more frequently than a gas car would have to fill up into a real-world positive. On it’s own it’s enough to only ever want to take the Tesla on road trips. But then you remember you purchased the “Full Self-Drive Option”.

Navigate on Autopilot

It’s 913 miles from my house to the resort. I drove actively for less than two hours of that. The rest was what I refer to as “babysitting the car”. Navigate on Autopilot is not unattended hands off driving. What it does is greatly reduce the actual real-time driving you do. It is easy to forget how much you are involved when driving. Checking mirrors, watching your speed, staying in your lane, figuring out if you need to change lanes, handling distractions from other people in the car. There is a lot asked of the driver at any given time. Over the years one has driven, these things get pushed back from being foreground operations to background threads. Nevertheless, they still contribute to being drained after a days worth of interstate driving.

Suppose you had seven cameras always watching around the car that handled all the little things you subconsciously do while driving? Suppose it could tell you when you might want to change lanes? Suppose when you wanted to change lanes you signaled and the car would perform the maneuver (provided the cameras say it’s safe) all on its own?

This is the reality of what “Navigate on Autopilot” is and it radically changes my relationship with long distance driving. Where I would usually switch off with my wife during these trips, there is no longer the need, after all I’m mostly not driving – only babysitting. It is not autonomous driving and that’s ok. It doesn’t have to be full auto to drastically improve the experience of driving a couple thousand miles over the course of two weeks.

With “Navigate on Autopilot” enabled, you still need to pay attention to what’s going on, you can’t be watching movies, sleeping or whatnot. What you can do is take in the surroundings in ways you really only could do as passenger. You’re more like a train conductor in that you need to keep interacting with the car (by providing torque on the wheel, or passing the cabin camera’s tests for paying attention) in order to keep the automation going. It’s super easy and makes such a difference at the end of your driving day.

Where I would previously feel drained and just mad I was not tired at all and didn’t want to set fires. At the end of the day I was ready to explore and not just to fall into bed. What used to be a wasted evening became usable again.

Needs better signs

The biggest problem I ran into was that some superchargers were not easily visible when the navigation system would say “you have arrived at your destination”. The worst two were one in a mall parking lot and another in an airport parking lot. Thankfully supercharging is a quick process and in neither case was I charged for parking. It did cause unnecessary stress in what I would consider the only unforced error of the trip. The latter of the not apparent stops I ended up curbing the right rear wheel, which caused more swearing than I’m used to on vacation. 

It’s not free

Supercharging isn’t free. It is however quite a bit cheaper than gas. It’s also extremely variable. Some places would charge $4.00 to go from 25% to 90%, where others would charge $11 for the same amount. At our resort in Florida, it was a flat rate of $0.39 to charge at 32 amps as long as you need. Aside from being a bit of a walk from our condo at the resort it was a super good arrangement.

Range anxiety is not a thing

For a Tesla Model 3 long range AWD there was, and should, be no range anxiety. Tesla has done a really good job at making sure the supercharging network extends to the major interstates and makes getting from home to vacation a joy, and not simply a compromise for not flying.

It only gets better

The push for electrification is only going to increase the places I can charge the Model 3 as well as push down the price to charge.