THE GRAND ETOUR

can you drive the length of the coun­try and back us­ing only elec­tric power? T3 takes to the high­way in a tesla to find out

T3 - - Man vs Tech - words nick odantzis pho­tog­ra­phy james sheppard

a hefty charge

Ad­mit­tedly, Tesla is ask­ing £90 large for the 100D – its tour-ca­pa­ble model – but in re­turn for this out­lay you can go about 393 miles on a charge, so you could drive al­most any­where in the UK. And when you fac­tor in Tesla’s own Su­per­charger network, which cov­ers most of the UK and en­ables you to charge the car up quickly, you re­ally can get wher­ever you want with­out wor­ry­ing. Tes­las aren’t just the pre­serve of rich folk, ei­ther, be­cause when Elon’s lat­est baby – the Model 3 – ar­rives in 2018, it’ll have the range of a mid-level Model S, with the down-to-earth price tag of a reg­u­lar fam­ily wagon.

As the of­fi­cial elec­tric guinea pig on T3, I’ve very nearly been stranded in an elec­tric car and an elec­tric bike be­fore, so I was all too keen to head up this month’s mis­sion: to drive the fa­mous 874-mile route from Land’s End to John O’Groats (twice, since I have to get there and back) and ver­ify if it re­ally is pos­si­ble to drive the en­tire length of the coun­try with­out get­ting stranded.

The Fri­day be­fore the jour­ney be­gan, I head over to the Tesla HQ in West Dray­ton to pick up the Model S 100D I’ll be driv­ing for the next few days. In the flesh, it looks vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal to the other, ‘lesser’ mod­els in the range – you just get a big­ger bat­tery un­der the hood… erm, floor­pan, even. That’s to say it’s a mighty fine-look­ing car, and should be suited to the big drive thanks to its long and low GT- style body shape and sump­tu­ous cabin.

Once I get back to my Bris­tol crib – with loads of bat­tery life, I might add – I start to for­mu­late a plan of at­tack. Look­ing at the route, first of all I’ll be driv­ing south to Land’s End, then up to John O’Groats, and fi­nally back to Lon­don to drop the car off with Tesla. Of the avail­able charg­ing sta­tions along the way, the fur­thest Su­per­charger south is Ex­eter, which is fine and dandy, but the north­ern most Su­per­charger is only as far as Dundee, which means the 100D won’t have enough range to get me to JOG. Oh, crap. Af­ter a quick check of Zap Map (zap-map.com) I con­firm that there is a public (non-Tesla-ap­proved) charger lo­cated at the JOG Visi­tor Cen­tre, and it’s a fast one at that, too. Prob­lem solved, or though I thought…

Set­ting off on the fol­low­ing Mon­day af­ter a well-rested week­end, with pho­tog­ra­pher James rid­ing shot­gun, we head straight to the south­ern tip. Tap­ping Land’s End Visi­tor Cen­tre into the sat nav on the Tesla’s hu­mon­gous 17-inch touch dis­play, I needn’t have both­ered do­ing any plan­ning as the com­puter cal­cu­lates charg­ing stops for us. It’s worked out that we can make it to Land’s End and back to the Ex­eter-based Su­per­charger on our re­turn, with about 20 per cent bat­tery re­main­ing. I ig­nore this ad­vice, how­ever,

be­ing a trep­i­da­tious type, and choose in­stead to charge up at the half-way point, just 80 miles in. Since the 100D still has over 80 per cent bat­tery re­main­ing, I as­sume it will take about 30 min­utes to charge up. To my sur­prise, it takes a whop­ping 90, and it sud­denly dawns on me that the whole trip is go­ing to take much longer than planned. Thank­fully, this is my first new-to-Tesla-charg­ing dis­cov­ery: apparently, the more juice in the tank, the slower it charges. When the bat­tery is al­most empty, the Su­per­charger is able to kick out over 100kW of power, but over the half­way mark, it starts to slow. Why? Tesla says it’s partly to help in­crease bat­tery longevity over many charg­ing cy­cles. In the real world this means you need to stop more of­ten, but charge for a shorter amount of time, which is more ef­fi­cient in the long run.

Plug­ging the Tesla in is a sim­ple, fuss-free af­fair - just hold the but­ton on the charger to open the car’s charg­ing flap, then plug it in. And wait. I’d al­ready down­loaded the Tesla app a few days ear­lier, which means I can go in­side, grab a cof­fee and watch the car charge in real time from the com­fort of the ar­ti­san café. The app tells you when you have enough charge to make it to your des­ti­na­tion, so there’s no thumb twid­dling in­volved.

Elec­tric dreams

Two hours later and we make it to Land’s End with­out break­ing a sweat. A cou­ple of Corn­wall’s finest pasties later, it was back to base to rest up be­fore the next day. Snap­per James is keen to get be­hind the wheel, so I hand the Tesla over to him for the re­main­der of the drive. Be­ing slightly shorter than my­self, James moves the seat and steer­ing wheel – both elec­tron­i­cally ad­justable – into a po­si­tion bet­ter suited to his pro­por­tions. Nor­mally, ad­just­ing back and forth be­tween the two of us over the course of a few days would have be­come ir­ri­tat­ing, but thanks to Tesla’s mem­o­ris­ing seats, you can cre­ate driver pro­files for each per­son. When I get in the car, all I have to do is tap my name on the dis­play to get the seat to au­to­mat­i­cally ad­just to my body. Great for shor­ties and lankies alike.

Be­fore we head up to Ed­in­burgh on day two, I make the de­ci­sion to aban­don my care­fully cal­cu­lated route plan and let the car do the hard graft. With the des­ti­na­tion loaded, the car sug­gests a charg­ing point along the way that would com­fort­ably get us there with plenty of juice re­main­ing. Re­mov­ing this con­firms my sus­pi­cions – that we wouldn’t make the full 373 miles with­out charg­ing where it sug­gests.

With the huge dis­tance to cover be­tween Bris­tol and there, it’s time to get a move on (within le­gal speed lim­its, of course). On the road, the 100D bursts into life with the kind of manic ac­cel­er­a­tion that could hum­ble a su­per­car, yet it’s per­fectly smooth, and the lack of en­gine rum­ble makes the cabin a quiet, zen-like place to sit – per­fect for re­duc­ing fa­tigue on a jour­ney. By the time we ar­rive in Ed­in­burgh early evening, we’re still feel­ing sur­pris­ingly fresh, so we hit the city in search of food and beer, and get a good night’s kip.

Which was wise, be­cause there’s a 600 mile/14-hour roundtrip ahead of us the fol­low­ing day, with a po­ten­tially tricky charg­ing sit­u­a­tion at the des­ti­na­tion. Hands down, this was go­ing to the ul­ti­mate elec­tric test. Stop­ping via the Dundee charger (the fur­thest north) gives us enough to get there, but we’ll need to charge it again for the way back.

The jour­ney to the John O’Groats is spec­tac­u­lar, the un­fet­tered moun­tain­ous ter­rain of the Cairn­gorms prov­ing the per­fect back­drop. As it’s such a nice day and the scenery so pho­to­genic, we de­cide to pause and grab an ice cream, and get a few shots at the stunning Loch Insh stop off. I’m amazed that you can get this far, and to such a beau­ti­ful lo­ca­tion, with­out touch­ing a drop of fuel. Fun­nily enough, though we’re in the mid­dle of nowhere, the lake­side restau­rant has just in­stalled a cou­ple of charg­ing points three days ear­lier. How’s that for luck? Think­ing it fate giv­ing me a sign of en­cour­age­ment, I take ad­van­tage and plug the Tesla in. Clearly, what fate was ac­tu­ally do­ing was mock­ing my fool­ish en­deav­ours as, try as I might, I can’t fig­ure out how to get the bloody

I’m amazed you can get to such a beau­ti­ful lo­ca­tion with­out a drop of fuel

thing to work. Oddly enough, the ma­chine doesn’t re­spond well to my loud curs­ing and re­peated raps to its me­tal­lic shroud.

Still, the stop-off does give me a chance to ex­pe­ri­ence the 100D’s fac­tory-fit Smart air sus­pen­sion, which al­lows us to get the car down a steep ramp and onto the wa­ter­front for a cheeky snap, with­out it scrap­ing the bot­tom. You too can have your very own high-rise su­per­car by go­ing into the sus­pen­sion menu and tap­ping the screen to se­lect the high­est set­ting. I feel pretty smug when the mouths of on­look­ing hol­i­day­mak­ers drop as the Tesla raises up on stilts. I’m told that the car also has GPS mem­ory built in, so if you drive some­where with lots of speed humps, the Tesla will remember where they are, au­to­mat­i­cally rais­ing or low­er­ing the sus­pen­sion, for max­i­mum smooth­ness. Se­ri­ously clever.

Seven hours later, and sev­eral

ques­tion­able va­ri­eties of pit­stop sarnie de­voured, we turn up in JOG at 7pm, nar­rowly miss­ing out on a well-earned hot meal at the tasty-look­ing on-site bistro. But fill­ing my belly is, for a change, not on the agenda. In­stead I head straight for the public charger round the back and hook up the Tesla, cross­ing my fin­gers. Look­ing at the dis­play on the charger there’s an im­me­di­ate red flag: de­spite the claimed fast-charge (43kW AC/50kW DC), we’re get­ting a piti­ful 9kW charg­ing rate; that’s more like a phone charger! Switch­ing to DC (us­ing the Tesla’s handy adapter stored in the boot) helps a bit, but we still have an ex­cru­ci­at­ing five hours left un­til we have enough to get us home. Then it’s a seven-hour jour­ney to Ed­in­burgh, mean­ing heads won’t be hit­ting the ho­tel hay un­til 5.30 in the morn­ing. And we have to leave again by 8am.

Home­ward bound

Af­ter sev­eral semi-lethal caf­feine doses and one of the most beau­ti­ful sun­sets I’ve ever wit­nessed over the cliffs of Dun­cansby Head look­ing out at the Isle of Stroma, I check the Tesla dash one fi­nal time. 270 miles isn’t quite maxed out, but it will get us to the Su­per­charger in Dundee, I think. Time to un­plug and get out of dodge.

But just as we’re about to leave, the sky sud­denly turns an ad­mit­tedly im­pres­sive, shade of Mor­dor black – surely a pre­cur­sor of things to come? Un­de­terred, we set out to drive through the night, bod­ies aching be­yond be­lief, but look­ing for­ward to get­ting a good, er, hour’s sleep at the end of it. Just a few min­utes out of JOG, the weather switches like a light from a few droplets of rain on the wind­screen to a mon­soon-like down­pour, with a spot of im­per­me­able fog just for good mea­sure. This makes the tight and twisty roads of the A99 al­most im­pass­able at times. It’s at this mo­ment I con­sider switch­ing on the Tesla’s En­hanced Au­topi­lot mode (a £5,700 op­tion at pur­chase), and let the car take care of the con­trols, KITT-style, while I grab a needed shot of joe. Only I can’t, be­cause, just my luck, our car hasn’t been specced with it. In­stead, I go low-tech, di­rect all vents to my face and blast out the air­con to keep me fo­cused un­til the next stop, at which point my par­tially rested col­league, who is sat fully re­clined next to me, snor­ing for Eng­land and bliss­fully un­aware of the hell fire I’m at­tempt­ing to nav­i­gate us through, will take over.

Be­fore I’ve even had a chance to di­gest the thought of switch­ing seats and get­ting my share of Zs, another is­sue raises its ugly head: the Tesla is now telling me we can­not make it to our des­ti­na­tion on the charge we have. This is bad news. We’re in the mid­dle of nowhere and I don’t rel­ish the thought of

I’m go­ing full eco war­rior, turn­ing off any­thing that sucks up pre­cious bat­tery

stop­ping at another non-Tesla sta­tion for another five hours to top the car up. So what do I do? Ig­nore it, ob­vi­ously. I’m not that sure about my de­ci­sion when the touch­screen starts flash­ing the same mes­sage too. But I’ve got a plan – in­stead of giv­ing into range anx­i­ety, I’m go­ing full-on eco war­rior mode, turn­ing off the dash, air­con - any­thing that might suck up pre­cious bat­tery juice. It’s a bit like when you put your phone into Air­plane mode to eke out those last few min­utes of Break­ing

Bad on the com­mute. The Tesla adds some help­ful ad­vice, sug­gest­ing I keep the speed be­low 60mph, but the lure of the Tesla’s mile-munch­ing power is hard to re­sist. Min­utes af­ter I’ve tamed my right foot into sub­mis­sion, the bat­tery per­cent­age at the fin­ish point starts to creep up, and be­fore I know it I’m see­ing a com­fort­able 10 per cent. Time to head home.

An­noy­ingly, none of this would have hap­pened later in the year. It turns out, af­ter chat­ting to a Mod­els S owner on the pre­vi­ous day, that Tesla will be build­ing charg­ing sta­tions at In­ver­ness at the end of 2017, so we would have got to JOG and back with zero drama. Typ­i­cal.

On the fourth and fi­nal day, af­ter a to­ken head rest, we hit the road for the re­turn to Tesla’s HQ to drop off the car. The drive is fast, smooth and just, well, easy. Once you’ve got the hang of the Su­per­charger eti­quette, it no longer be­comes a chal­lenge to charge. Just stop when it wants you to, freshen up and head on. It re­ally is that sim­ple. Un­like other elec­tric cars, which rely on the mixed bag that is the public charg­ing network, Tesla has nailed the game with its Su­per­charger in­fra­struc­ture. You don’t even have to worry about turn­ing up to a Su­per­charger sta­tion to find a Tesla party that you’re not in­vited to, be­cause the in-car dis­play tells you how many stalls are free be­fore you get there, so you won’t have to hang about un­nec­es­sar­ily.

Are elec­tric cars ready for the long haul then? The proof is in the pud­ding: at no point in my last six hours with the Tesla did I feel anx­ious about whether we’d make it home or not, and I only checked the bat­tery gauge a hand­ful of times. Once you stop wor­ry­ing about how the car is get­ting you there and just en­joy the drive ahead, that’s a gamechanger.

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