I went on a road trip in an electric car: false good idea?

ONE MONTH IN THE UNITED STATES — In this series of articles, Numerama tells the story of the American journey of one of its journalists for a month. Today, a 2,530-kilometer road trip through the national parks of Utah and Arizona… with a Tesla Model Y without a charging cable.

“This is the United States, they have charging stations everywhere”. In December 2023, a few days before my departure to Las Vegas, driving 1,572 miles in a Tesla, in the middle of the American desert, didn’t worry me that much. Accustomed to the big California cities, I had a feeling that the United States was ahead of France. I still checked for safety that my trip was possible thanks to the tool A Better Route Planner and the presence of charging stations everywhere reassured me. At worst, I could simply plug the car into a power outlet every evening at the hotel.

10 days after my arrival in the United States, everything went well. By “went well”, I mean I didn’t break down, I loved my trip and the car was returned to Hertz as planned. However, a few adjustments had to be made. For 10 days, I was sometimes not serene on the road, due to trips that were played out with only a few percent (and the negative temperatures that made the planner imprecise). Important precision: I do not regret my choice. You just need to have a few things in mind before embarking on the adventure.

From Las Vegas to Bryce Canyon, through Monument Valley and Arches

This article is the first in a series entitled “One Month in the United States.” From December 27th to January 19th, I first took a 10-day road trip as a couple, before covering the CES in Las Vegas for Numerama. I then flew to San Francisco to meet the giants of tech (and autonomous taxis). Finally, my trip ended in San José, for the Samsung Unpacked conference. The goal of this series is not to tell my life story, but to give advice to future travelers looking for information on the technological and cultural differences between France and the US.

For this first American road trip, we chose a Tesla Model 3 Long Range, a vehicle with a range of 576 km. We rented it for 10 days at a rate of 700 dollars, which corresponds to the lowest prices at Hertz. First incident: Hertz no longer had it on the day of pick-up. They “upgraded” me with a Model Y, with a range of 533 km. It’s a bit less, but I thought it would be fine. Second letdown: there was no charging cable in the trunk. Only a Tesla/J1772 adapter (the slow charging socket in the United States). Why? Hertz explained to me that people steal the cables and they no longer replace them. They could have invented a deposit system, but ok?

Lots of Tesla, no cables. They have all been stolen. // Source: Numerama

Looking back, these two red flags should have alerted me. The range was lower than in my calculations and I didn’t even have a way to recharge in case of emergency… Too bad, we still took the Tesla. I’ll spare you the details about its aesthetic condition. American renters really don’t pay attention to their vehicles (but they do give access to the app).

Then it was the beginning of the road trip. Our program was as follows: Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Canyonlands, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and then back to Las Vegas. Numerama is not a travel website, so I won’t tell you how absolutely magnificent everything was (but it was). Let’s focus on the road.

Here, roughly, is my route reconstituted in ABRP.
Here, roughly, is my route reconstituted in ABRP. It does not take into account some “fills” at the hotel, which made the stops less frequent. // Source: Numerama

For sleeping, we had spotted several hotels in cities near the parks. The cities near Las Vegas all have Tesla superchargers, which limited the risks. It was afterwards that it got complicated.

Two canceled hotels and program changes

One thing to know about electric vehicles in the United States: there are several types of charging ports. The most popular are Tesla, J772 (slow), and CCS (fast). American manufacturers have recently decided to make the Tesla outlet the standard, but non-Tesla stations today use a port that is incompatible with the rental Model Y. In some cases, the cable is also not provided with the charging station. A Tesla/J772 adapter is therefore useless without a Tesla/Tesla cable.

In other words: my road trip was only possible by passing through official Tesla chargers (superchargers or hotel chargers). Some stations offered by the integrated planner in the car or A Better Route Planner were incompatible with my vehicle, due to the lack of a cable. In the evening, it was also impossible to recharge on a regular outlet. All of this quickly led us to cancel two hotels, as they were too far from the Tesla chargers. We preferred to slightly change our itinerary in order to spend all our nights near a Supercharger (or a Tesla Destination charger, which offers free slow charging) in order to start the next day serenely (the cold caused a 2 to 3% decrease in charge overnight). Nothing serious, it actually suited us each time (bringing us closer to the next destinations).

At Zion, we found a J772 charging station in a parking lot. Since it included the cable, we were able to recharge with the adapter. // Source: Numerama
At Zion, we found a J772 charging station in a parking lot. Since it included the cable, we were able to recharge with the adapter. // Source: Numerama

Most of the time, our itineraries were perfectly feasible. We generally arrived at the next Supercharger with 15 to 20% charge, which was absolutely not a problem as long as we respected the speed limits. American roads being straight lines, it is easy to be tempted by acceleration. This then leads to a 10 to 15% loss in estimated range.

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There was only one journey that posed a problem for me, between Lake Powell and Blanding (with a visit to Monument Valley in the middle). This is where we had to cancel our first hotel, as the detour it caused risked making it impossible to reach the next Supercharger. We chose a hotel an hour’s drive from Monument Valley, with Tesla chargers just downstairs. By starting at 100%, stopping at Monument Valley for a hike (no car tour, it was too risky), and heading to the supercharger at the end of the day, the planner sometimes announced 8%, sometimes 3% (due to the cold). Needless to say, I was not extremely serene.

Until Monument Valley, I drove 5 mph (about 8 km/h) below the speed limit (with the heating turned off as soon as we got hot). A change that allowed me to arrive at Monument Valley with 51% battery, when the itinerary predicted 36% at the time of departure. Two hours of unpleasant driving, where I more often looked at the estimated percentage at the arrival than the road, but which ended with a feeling of victory. Fortunately, thanks to these savings, we were able to approach the second part of the journey with tranquility.

During the following routes, I was sometimes anxious, as it is not uncommon to drive 3 to 4 hours without any supercharger in sight, but everything went well. Of course, a normal person is supposed to have the cable, which solves all the problems (many hotels/camps have installed sockets for electric cars, but they do not provide the equipment). But in my case, the fear of running out of charge in the middle of the canyons was not pleasant.

Tires, cold, and the United States

Another thing for which I blame Hertz (they received a nice letter from me upon my return): the rented Tesla had deflated tires. Obviously, especially in negative temperatures, this has an impact on range (between 3 and 4% per trip according to the Energy app).

During the middle of the trip, we took the initiative to stop at a gas station to inflate the tires. Problem: most stations there do not have a pressure gauge. It is impossible to know the tire pressure. In short, you inflate and cross your fingers.

Unsurprisingly, we put too much air. Since the Tesla’s screen updates with a delay, we had to get back on the road for the car to start shouting to inform us of the danger. After deflating, driving, and deflating again, we finally reached the recommended pressure (which reduced energy losses due to the tires by an average of 0.5% per trip).

Sometimes, the weather conditions were not optimal. // Source: Numerama
Sometimes, the weather conditions were not optimal. // Source: Numerama

I repeat: none of this would have happened with a charging cable in the trunk. We could have plugged in every night at the hotel without having to worry about stopping at Tesla superchargers. The culprit is not the electric car, but the rental company. However, there is still some progress to be made to make road trips in EV truly simple, without these constraints. Only one park out of all the ones we visited had thought to install charging stations… This is too little, especially for territories close to Las Vegas or Los Angeles, two cities filled with Tesla. No doubt that, within a few years, the problem will be solved.

Despite what the anti-electric car people may say, I do not regret renting a Tesla to travel through the American national parks

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