Christmas 2018 Tesla Road Trip Part 1
If a friend asked you to join them and share the driving on a 2700km road trip from Edmonton to Phoenix in the middle of winter, what would you say? What if a pair of dogs were joining the two of you? Sitting in a cramped car, with the engine droning on, especially as it fights for power in the mountains of Montana, freezing cold each time you get into it after taking breaks to walk the dogs – on the surface, it doesn’t sound all that fun.
I said yes without a second thought. Why? Tesla Model X. That was the vehicle we’d be (auto)piloting on this particular trip.
I was picked up by my friend Paul early Sunday morning. My luggage for the trip fit nicely into the rear hatch, along with all of Paul’s gear (and he brought a fair bit, as he would be staying for several weeks – he actually had the front trunk also full, with clothes and even a portable air compressor for filling tires/etc – which proved useful later on). Upon opening it, I was greeted by his two friendly dogs. They had themselves a cozy bed with the third-row seats folded down. While driving, they would be safely harnessed into the second-row seats.
Paul asked if I wanted to take the first session behind the wheel – absolutely! Normally the drive from Edmonton to Calgary, on the relatively straight, somewhat boring road (especially after you’ve done the trip countless times) is far from exciting. Doing it in an X, with Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance package ready and more than capable of doing most of the hard work, on the other hand, would be fantastic.
The drive south towards Red Deer was uneventful. While many Albertans stop in Red Deer’s Gasoline Ally on the way to Calgary, we’d be making a stop at the Sheraton Hotel just off the highway instead. It is home to 4 Tesla Superchargers (the first Superchargers installed in Alberta in 2015 actually).
One other Tesla was using a stall when we arrived. After a quick plugin, we took the dogs on a walk. While we had more than enough range to make it directly to Calgary, the dogs need their walks and bathroom breaks. It was nice to stretch our legs also during the walk. After the dogs were walked, we decided a bathroom break of our own would be in order, and as neither of us had eaten prior to starting off the trip, breakfast would be in order. The dogs happily jumped back into the X, with some space to stretch out and lounge around while we paid a visit to the Sheraton’s restaurant. Like we would do many more times on the trip, we set the climate of the Tesla to a comfortable temperature and used its ability to remain on, so the dogs wouldn’t get chilly while we were away (this works equally well keeping the cabin cool on hot summer days as well!).
We actually rushed our breakfast a little, as the car was done charging – time to continue the trip towards our next destination, Calgary. Planning a trip like this is nearly a piece of cake. Tell the Tesla where you want to go, and it routes you through the Supercharger network. While that could be used – it ultimately would get us to our destination – it would do so via the west coast, adding quite a bit of time to the trip. That is because there are one or two chargers needed south of Fort Macleod AB and north of Butte MT. As Paul is a vet at this particular route (he does it at least twice a year), he used the website Plugshare (it is a crowdsourced listing of EV chargers around the world, a must have for EV owners doing road trips!) and planned for us to ‘top up’ in Lethbridge at a Peavy Mart (this fantastic company offers up free EV charging, in this case via a slower 80A/12kW charger compared to the 120kW Superchargers) and then overnight at a hotel in Great Falls Montana that had a charger we could use while we slept.
The remainder of day 1 was fairly uneventful (until the very end!) – after Red Deer, we let the dogs get some exercise at the Calgary Supercharger, then again when we walked around Fort Macleod. It was my first time at Alberta’s southern-most Supercharger, and it actually was a great stop for the dogs, as we found some empty, fenced in fields they could run free in – as well as a pizza joint we grabbed a quick bite at.
Only at Peavey Mart did we find ourselves waiting for the car to charge. Thankfully Tesla has plans to soon add the missing Supercharges to enable a painless trip into Montana.
Due to the distance between Lethbridge and Great Falls, combined with the higher highway speeds Montana offers (130KM/hr!!), we cut it rather close, arriving at the hotel with 3 miles remaining. While this may sound like a ‘close call’, it actually wasn’t. The car does an extremely good job keeping the driver apprised of range – and it prompted me to slow down several times (speeds above 110KM/hr start to result in less range than the car plans for) – I just choose to ignore the warnings, only slowing down just outside Great Falls to ensure we made it.
Day two started a tad early – one of the dogs was off her schedule, and politely woke us early in the morning to use the bathroom outside :-). Paul set the car to finish charging – a good trick to keep in mind: Overnight charge the car not quite full (90%) and then start it charging to 100% when you wake up. This allows the car and battery system to be warm and at optimal temperature when you begin your travels.
Cold is the enemy of EVs, as range decreases as the vehicle diverts electricity to warming itself and its occupants. This trick Paul used helps ensure we could get the max range as we began our day’s journey – important as there was still quite the stretch we needed to travel before arriving at the next Supercharger in Butte MT.
Heading out in the X early in the morning provided the first daylight views of Montana – what a beautiful landscape!
I took the first leg – it was oh so nice enjoying the scenery with the Model X’s huge windshield. Almost all of my driving on this trip would be on autopilot, it is an amazing tool that takes over most of the driving, particularly on highways, requiring just supervision (it checks that your hand is on the wheel, ready to intervene if ever needed, which is extremely infrequent, but does occur…). It significantly reduces fatigue, and when it comes to picturesque scenery, it gives a little extra assurance that some sightseeing won’t come at the expense of safely traveling the open road.
This X has the earliest form of autopilot, AP1. It primarily uses a single forward-looking camera, along with radar and sonar, to understand the road ahead (and immediately adjacent/behind, thanks to that sonar). Newer Tesla’s come with AP2.5, 8 cameras instead of 1, allowing a longer range 360 degrees understanding of vehicles and obstacles on/near the road, and a more powerful computer to manage it all. Full autonomy will require those 8 cameras, but won’t be available for some time yet. In the meantime, Autopilot v1 is still amazing and is one of the greatest innovations vehicles have seen in possibly the last 30 years.
Weather in Montana, as it was in Alberta, was cool but not cold (-10 to +5), and clear skies followed us throughout our journey. We wouldn’t need to test out the all-weather tires (chosen over winters specifically because this X spends much of its winter life in the not so snowy Phoenix area) nor the renowned all-wheel-drive system on inclement roadways during the trip – but other experiences have given me great confidence that Tesla’s of all types handle winter weather superbly well. When starting out for the day, or returning from a dog walk, we would use the Tesla mobile app to preheat the car – ensuring it was toast and comfortable for us.
However, even if we didn’t preheat the car, the electric heater starts pushing warm and then hot air nearly instantly – far quicker than any gasoline vehicle I’ve been in. It is an underappreciated aspect of EVs, but the comfort they afford from those frigid days Alberta gets each winter is simply priceless. Not to mention never having to stand around at the pump while refueling your car – most charging is done at home and takes but a matter of seconds to plug in and leave it for the night.
As a brief aside, I’m going to dive a bit deeper into home charging. Some people who consider the purchase of an EV get worked up about the lack of public chargers – there are gas stations nearly every block, not having that many EV chargers must make EVs impractical? What is overlooked is the reason gas stations are so prevalent in the first place: ICE vehicles are thirsty for gas, and it isn’t practical to refuel at home so we refuel at gas stations. Every house has electricity, so it inherently is ready to recharge an EV. All electric vehicles can be recharged using the standard plug we have here in North America, 110V. For some folks, who work from home or have short commutes, that may be all that is needed. Faster charging (enough to easily fill the large batteries of Tesla’s and all the other EVs coming to market overnight) can be accomplished by installing a standard 220V outlet for the car (like what a dryer uses). Costs vary, but it typically isn’t too costly – ranging between $500-$1000, although exceptions can increase the price. Once home charging is in place, owning an EV is amazingly convenient – just imagine if a magic fairy refueled your gas car every morning, wouldn’t that be fantastic? That is EV ownership in a nutshell!
Day two took us first to a Supercharger in Butte, and then to Lima. Oh Lima… officially one of my favorite Supercharger stops now that I have experienced it. What’s so great about Lima? Let me back up and describe the typical Supercharger location. As previously mentioned at Red Deer, oftentimes they are located near a hotel. This allows for easy (and 24hr!) access to bathrooms, and restaurants, either in the hotel or nearby. Other times they are located near a shopping center, as is the case with Southgate in Edmonton or Crossiron Mills in Calgary. Again, food and bathrooms are readily available. All of these make for pleasant stops (and often nicer restroom facilities than typically found at gas stations), but then there is Lima. Lima is a rather small town, and the Supercharger is located at a truck stop, which isn’t typical for Tesla.
But therein lies the hidden gem that made Lima tops on my list – there is a nearby diner that is super cozy, with friendly staff and most importantly, super yummy (and cheap!) food. Think grandma’s home cooking, and you won’t be far off! I filled up on a wonderful lunch and had no room left for dessert, but I hear their desserts are savory and delicious, and I’ll be looking forward to a return visit down the road – I can’t recall ever wanting to return to a particular gas station before ;-).
We alternated driving on day two, swapping at each Supercharger/dog walking stop. Paul was quite happy to put the Tesla through its paces on the higher speed limits Montana and Idaho have. While their mountains are mere hills compared to our Rocky Mountains, the electric powertrain still had opportunities to really shine – climbing steep grades is a delight. The vehicle never is lacking in power, and with no gears, there are no delays or lugging while stuck in the wrong gear. Once the hill is conquered, the decent awaits, and again, it is a delight in the Tesla. Electric vehicles recapture energy that would otherwise be wasted via heat and noise (from brakes) in what is known as regenerative braking. Thus, when going down steep hills, you don’t even touch the brake pedal, simply lifting off the accelerator pedal invokes the regen braking, and the vehicle descends at whatever pace you need, filling the battery as you go.
Being back on the Supercharger network again, we made great time on day two, calling it a night south of Salt Lake City. The next day, we made it the remainder of the way to our destination in Phoenix, stopping at a few more Superchargers along the way. Yes, having to charge may have extended our trip some, but having the dogs (and bladders ourselves), we needed stops along the way the same way the car did. This road trip was an enjoyable experience (having great company, and super well behaved and cute CUTE dogs along didn’t hurt!), as I’ve learned all Tesla road trips tend to be! I was fortunate to have a couple of days to enjoy Phoenix (a beautiful place with weather that certainly is a nice change of pace from back home this time of year). Wow, do they ever have nice parks!
We also managed to find something that looked decisively like a flamethrower but was absolutely NOT a flamethrower ;-).
And this being a Tesla road trip, it wouldn’t be complete without an obscure Tesla sighting…
Alas, my time in Phoenix quickly came to an end, and I ended up on a plane back home. But no rest for the wary, no sooner than touching down back in Edmonton and part two of my Christmas Road Trip commenced… and wouldn’t you know it, it would involve another Model X! More on that coming soon…
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