A few weeks back I had the opportunity to drive a Tesla Model 3 for 1200 miles roundtrip from Nashville to western Pennsylvania. It was a great trip and gave me some clarity around electric cars and what the future might hold. So, continue below and I’ll give you the good, the bad, and my thoughts on what the future of the American road trip might be.
My first observation is that “I get it.” Electric cars are amazing to drive. The instant acceleration, the quiet drive, the smooth build-up of speed without the jerk of a transmission, all make for a driving experience unlike anything I’ve driven before. And… one-peddle driving. Wow. It’s hard to go back to an ICE (internal combustion engine) car after that experience. In stop-and-go city traffic there just isn’t anything like being able to drive with one peddle.
This probably applies more to the Tesla than electric cars in general, but I also liked the bare and simple interior more than I expected. I expected to hate the simplicity. I expected that I’d be frustrated and constantly looking for buttons to do common car tasks. In reality, I didn’t miss the legacy car interior.
Something about the iPad-like screen with a massive iOS-style settings screen made the car feel like an appliance rather than a machine. In an ICE car I feel like I’m at the whim of the machine. I don’t completely understand what’s going on and at any point mechanical failure could stop me. But, in the Tesla the screens of settings made me feel like a user — I was in control. I felt like the Tesla served me and what I wanted. It’s probably not for everybody, but I really do get now why so many people are fans of what Tesla is doing. It’s different from the legacy brands and reimagines the driving experience in new ways.
My impression from the Internet was that instant torque was something for drag-racers and specification nerds. In reality, wow. In every ICE car I’ve ever driven — mind you, I’ve only driven efficient 4-cylinder cars — acceleration came slow. If you need to pass an 18-wheeler going 80 it’s a delicate dance of runway length and the motor is going to redline. In the Tesla, you just went. I needed to go 85 real quick to pass. It just kind of happened. No noise. No jerks. Just acceleration. With the interior, it made me feel in control. The car wasn’t holding me back. I could drive and navigate unconstrained by the machine. Again, I was a user. I was the boss. Just like with my iPhone.
The bad really comes down to one thing: infrastructure. Infrastructure for an electric car comes down to two components for me: battery technology & charging locations. In both cases, I’d say they’re only about 70% there for an American road trip. It’s possible to drive an electric car from Nashville to almost anywhere, but it’s not going to be a great trip. Not yet, at least.
So, let’s start with charging locations. It’s just not there. At least, not in Kentucky and Ohio. When I say there, I mean they are obviously there. It’s just that there requires a good bit of panning and isn’t necessarily the there you’d rather be at. Let me explain.
On a “regular” road trip in a ICE, you don’t really plan stops before you leave. If you’re a picky eater or have a specific regional food establishment in mind, you might plan around that, but otherwise that’ll be it. You just drive until you need to use the restroom or you feel like a break. Rarely is the gas tank being empty the reason for stopping. You know, whenever you need to eat our potty, you can just top off the tank. You also know that, no matter where you are at, a gas station is nearby.
Driving electric is totally different. Before I left for my trip, I really had to plan where I was stopping. There’s only so many charging places and there are no other options. You stop when you need to, or you’ll be getting towed in a dead car. And, where you’re stopping really does matter in an electric car. It’s going to take a while — which we’ll get to here in a bit — so you’re not going to want to add additional eating or bathroom stops.
In Kentucky and Ohio stops were not great. Stops at a Target or Meijer are just fine, but they aren’t really designed for a quick in and out. Plus, the chargers are always far away in some corner of a big parking lot. I probably walked a few city blocks to get to the bathroom and grab a Coke. Sometimes the parking lots were near some chain restaurants, but once it’s dark a long stroll through a suburban parking lot just didn’t sound appealing. And this was with just me. With the kids? Forget it!
West Virginia was a good bit better than Ohio and Kentucky. There charging stations were at a restaurant/convenience store called Sheetz. Sheetz had bathrooms, fresh-made fast-food, convience store items, and clean restrooms. If all charging stations were something like a Sheetz, we’d be much better off. Increase the frequency of these to one every thirty minutes or so, and we’d be well on our way to hitting semi-parity with an ICE road trip.
Which, gets us to the final bad part of driving an electric car on a road trip: charging times and frequency. I get it, I was in a base model Tesla 3. With 100 miles or so of additional range, maybe I’d be singing a different song, but I don’t think so. Even with additional range, we’re still talking stopping for 15-25 minutes and there’s a huge drop in your freedom of where you stop. Stops didn’t feel as long at Sheetz as they did at Meijer. But, sitting around for 15 minutes in a parking lot still isn’t great. Especially those stops I did late at night. Sitting in the parking lot of Subway in middle of nowhere Kentucky at 11 o’clock at night sucked.
I think we’re almost there. We’re unfortunately not going to get trains and other forms of public transportation in my lifetime, but electric cars are a good step forward. The first thing we need to fix is the cost. We need $25k electric minivans and $20k electric Honda Civics. I’ll never have $50k or $80k to spend on a car. That needs to be the main focus.
Additionally, we either need battery technology to go down in price so Tesla Model S sized long-range battery can hit a Model 3 base price or we’re going to need to find a way to charge a Model 3 sized battery to 90% in 5-10 minutes. The less expensive EVs just have too short of a range. Stopping every forty-five minutes or so for a twenty-minute break is really annoying.
So, give us big inexpensive batteries so we stop for twenty-five minutes every two and a half hours at a Sheetz like complex or find a way to give a smaller batteries a 90% charge in five minutes at retrofitted gas stations dotting the interstate every fifteen minutes or so.
If we do these three things — lower costs & improve the charging infrastructure — electric cars have a future. If we don’t, I think EVs on the American road trip will continue to be the realm of the very rich or the moderately rich and patient.