A 21st Century Wagon Trail along the Super Charger Highway
by Julie Haney and Bill Dakin
Watch the video presentation of this article at the LiveCoolDavis channel on YouTube (coming soon)
Why take a Tesla road trip to Maine?
After a year of Covid captivity we needed to go on an adventure. Our good friend announced that she was going to celebrate her 60th birthday in Maine during September; we decided to join her.
We were not yet comfortable flying on an airplane, so we concluded that a road trip from Davis, California to Round Pond, Maine would be safer and a lot more fun.
Our initial plan was to purchase a camper van for our road trip to Maine so we could camp along the way and not risk exposing ourselves to Covid in hotels. It became quickly clear that everyone else in the country had the same idea, thus creating a huge shortage of vans for sale. We considered driving our 21-year-old Toyota pickup truck and camping inside the camper shell. We have camped in our truck over the years but decided that our 2000 Toyota may not be reliable enough to handle the cross-country road trip. We considered Plan C: What if we drove our new Tesla across the country? As I like to say: “It would be like taking a 21st century wagon trail along the super charger highway”. Was it possible to make it across the country without getting stranded?
Here is our story of how we decided to purchase our Tesla, the planning logistics of our trip, and how the trip turned into a fantastic adventure in the new world of electric vehicle travel.
The Tesla stigma
In April of 2021 we purchased our first electric vehicle. It was a logical upgrade from our 2013 Toyota Prius Hybrid.
Our first step on the path to owning an electric car was to add more solar panels to our house’s roof top. We increased our rooftop PV system from 2.55 kW to 5.07 kW to offset our anticipated additional electricity use with charging our electric vehicle (EV).
Next, we had to decide which EV to purchase. Our search criteria included:
- All-wheel drive / ability to drive in the snow
- Sufficient range and charging infrastructure to handle longer road trips, in addition to just local trips
- Enough space to fit an upright bass in the car. (Bill is a musician and does not want to rely on the 21-year-old Toyota pickup to get to rehearsals and shows)
Based on the EV options in early 2021, the Tesla Model Y met our needs the best. When the back seats fold down there is 6 feet of space to fit the bass with room to spare. At 329 miles on a charge, it had one of the largest ranges of EVs at the time. Tesla’s charging infrastructure, with supercharger stations across the country was also better than any other EV option. A bonus was that the Model Y is also very well designed. The only issue was getting over the stigma of owning a Tesla. It is by far the most expensive and fancy car that we ever considered owning. With the encouragement of friends who already own Teslas, we were able to overcome our reservations, and as soon as we drove it, we realized how well designed and practical the car could be. Also, we selected a muted exterior color to help downplay attention.
Falling in love
The Model Y is a hatchback model with lots of storage room. We spent a couple of evenings parked in our driveway playing with the controls and learning about all the features. The design was intuitive and fun. We discovered the “Toy Box” which includes a Romantic Fireplace Screen setting and an “Emissions Control” feature for every seat in the car. Emissions Control is Tesla’s playful name for a whoopy cushion!
Next, we discovered all the various Tesla accessory websites where we purchased cool Tesla gear to add custom touches to our new car. Our purchases included: a roof rack, charging accessories, heavy duty floor mats for muddy shoes and gear, gadget trays for the storage console, side panel garbage cans, sunshades to help keep summer heat off the sky window, good-fitting windshield sunshades, and a dark matte panel cover for the blaring white dashboard. It was interesting to learn about all the fuss people have created around the love for their Tesla.
While researching the Tesla we realized that Tesla had done on a fantastic job building an infrastructure of charging stations all over America. This, combined with the Tesla’s on-board navigation system, makes travel easy and takes the stress out of where to charge while traveling. With our big cross-country road trip coming up in a few months, we realized that it was possible to drive the Tesla to Maine and back. We did not know how smooth it would be or if we would get stranded, but it looked doable.
We decided it would be smart to take a shorter road trip to understand the additional time needed for charging and gain some travel confidence. We chose Sisters, Oregon because we love it there and, from Davis, it is typically an 8-hour drive that goes through rural parts of Oregon. We felt this would make for a good test run.
On June 9th we set off. It took us 9 to 9.5 hours with three charging stops of about 20 minutes each. Our first stop had a wonderful novel feel about it. It was only an hour away and across the from the famous Granzella’s Deli Store in Williams, California. We parked next to other Tesla drivers who were comparing Tesla stories like in an old fashion parking lot car show. We felt like we had joined a fun car club. After chatting with the other Tesla owners, we visited Granzella’s and discovered a delicious Muffletta sauce, almost as good as New Orleans.
Our other stops also proved to be delicious. In Mt Shasta we had fresh milkshakes at Black Bear Diner, and in Bend we bought some good local beer. We started thinking that maybe this new Tesla lifestyle would make us fat, but it also allowed us to have time to walk the dog and get in some much-needed leg stretching. It is amazing how fast 20 minutes goes by.
Things we learned on our Oregon test run were that we did not need to pack as much as we thought, that things needed to be organized or it quickly became chaotic, and that charging the car was very straight forward and easy. The on-board navigation made it very easy to find charging locations and stops. All we had to do was type in our destination
We also took another short camping trip to the Mendocino coast to test out our new storage strategies. Again, realizing that you don’t need as much as you think and that our storage strategies still needed improvement.
Where are we going to put it all?
With the big departure day drawing near, we continued to develop our storage and packing strategies. Packing was complicated because we were going to be in a variety of climates, camping, hiking, hoteling, trying not to eat in restaurants, visiting friends and family, and traveling with our 15-pound terrier mutt, Tucker.
We used clear storage boxes to sort things into logical categories: Food for the AM, food for the PM, food for the dog, a kitchen utensil box, first aid and toilet paper, and a perfectly sized box to fit a block of ice inside the cooler so our food would not get wet and gross.
The front trunk, aka: “frunk” was perfect for sleeping bags and small cooler. The back trunk is very deep, but hard to access when the car is packed so it was used for things we didn’t need too often. It was a true puzzle fitting all our stuff so we could have good visibility and easily get at things that we needed daily. The key was to put them back in place when done. Of course, this system unraveled a few times, but it was easy to reestablish order.
The best system, by far, was the ice container inside the cooler, which kept our food cool, but dry. The challenge was to find the smallest storage box that would fit a block of ice inside the cooler. Ironically, we had a hard time find blocks of ice east of Nevada. When we stayed in places with a freezer, we were able to refreeze the box of melted ice.
Plotting our course
With our storage system perfected we began plotting our course to coastal town of Round Pond, Maine. The goal was to find the most direct route with added stops to visit friends and family and choose routes that had charging infrastructure. We allotted 8 to 12 hours of driving time per day. We also wanted charging stops near points of interest, pet friendly hotels, camping options, and ways to stay away from crowds. After spending a couple of nights studying our brand-new old-school USA Road Atlas from National Geographic, the “Adventure Edition”, and our Tesla’s 21st century navigation system, we came up with our route. Based on your final desired destination, Tesla’s onboard navigation system will map out where to charge along your route, including the time required to reach your next charging station and or final destination. It also shows how much charge you will have left when you arrive at each destination.
Tesla’s super charger infrastructure follows the main highways in America, but not some of those beloved lonely backroads like Highway 50 through Nevada. We settled on going Highway 80 East to Wyoming and then south to Colorado Springs to visit friends; then Highway 70 thru Kansas and Missouri to Kentucky, dropping south to Asheville, North Carolina to visit family; then north to Maine, with stops in Pennsylvania and Boston to visit friends.
Our return trip would take us through the Northeast to Highway 90 with a stop at Niagara Falls, then along the shores of Lake Erie, Cleveland, then at Chicago drop onto Highway 80 through Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and then home.
On the road at last
We left Davis on August 14th, 2021, and we arrived in Round Pond, Maine on September 1st. The first night we stayed in Tahoe visiting with family. We camped one night in Wyoming at Kurt Gowdy State Park. Here we realized that camping took too much time packing and unpacking for just a quick overnight. We had hotel reservations for all other nights that we didn’t stay with friends; these were basically mid-range Best Western type hotels, which were dog friendly. We didn’t think to look for accommodations with on-site chargers, but most accommodations were near charging stations so we could charge before checking in or after checking out.
A typical night at a hotel would be to check in, drop our bags, turn on our portable air cleaner inside the hotel room (as a Covid precaution – probably overkill, but we felt safer), and then go charge the car so we would be set up for the next morning’s departure (the charger was usually within 1 to 3 minutes from the hotel). During this 20 to 30 minute charge time we would eat a snack or dinner, and go over our day and plan out our next day.
The charging experience
All of our charging stops usually took an average of 20-40 minutes and for a 12-hour driving day: 2 of those hours would be spent charging. Each time we charged we logged charging data, including when, where, starting and ending charge, how much, how long, cost to charge, etc. We never had to wait for a charger. Only once did we feel like we cut it too close to running “empty” when we coasted in with a 2% charge. (We’ve heard that there is a 5% margin of charge, so we weren’t too worried, but it was a bit of a thrill). While there were a couple of times that people would talk and compare notes with us, most of the other people charging kept to themselves and their phones so there wasn’t that friendly car- club-feel that we had expected. The charging stations were typically unprotected from weather and located near a conference center, a large hotel, a supermarket parking lot, a shopping mall, or at a gas station chain. A couple of times in Iowa they were located at a rest stop complex. One time, in Colorado Springs, we had to pay $1 to enter a parking garage where the charging station was located! Besides the gas station chain charging stations, there were no conveniences like a bathroom, garbage can, or windshield washer. We ended up purchasing our own windshield washer set-up and daydreamed of what future charging stations would be like, including the obvious amenities, festive food trucks, walking paths, nature areas…etc. There is potential for some sustainably minded entrepreneurs to locate future charging stations near parks or walking paths and provide some amenities such as healthy cuisine food trucks, picnic shelters, etc.
Besides some additional time required for charging, how did driving an EV across the country compare with driving a gas-powered vehicle? We compared both fuel costs and emissions of driving our EV with both our 2000 Toyota Tacoma truck at 18 miles per gallon (mpg) and a more fuel-efficient compact vehicle with an average of 35 mpg.
The cost to charge at Tesla Supercharger stations varied by location. The average for our trip was $0.31 per kWh; as low as $12/kWh in Indiana and Wyoming and as high as $0.38/kWh in Nevada. A couple of states we passed through (Tennessee and Nebraska) charged by the minute because state law in those areas prohibits charging directly for electricity due to utility regulatory rules. Gas costs also vary by location. To compare fueling costs, we collected gas prices during our trip (August-September 2021). Average gas prices were $3.30 per gallon, ranging from a low of $2.78 in Nebraska and a high of $4.50 in California.
For each charging stop, we logged charging costs and estimated comparable fueling costs for the location we charged. Figure 2 compares total charging costs for our trip with projected fueling costs for both the Toyota truck and compact car. We ended up averaging using 234 Watt-hours per mile with an average cost of $0.09 per mile. We saved almost $200 in fuel costs compared to an efficient 35 mpg ICE vehicle and over $1,200 compared to our truck. Savings would be higher today with gas prices about $1.50 higher than they were last fall. Also since there is not engine, additional maintenance like oil is not required.
Figure 2: Total Trip Fuel Cost Comparison (Aug-Sept 2021)
Carbon emissions from an EV are typically much lower than emissions from ICE vehicles, but emissions vary depending on the source of electricity used to charge the car. To estimate carbon emissions charging our EV across the country, we used latest average CO2 emissions by state based on electricity generation sources from U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA). Table 1 summarizes average CO2 emissions by state. CO2 emissions for gasoline are 18.95 lbs./gallon, or 1.05 lb. CO2 per mile driven for our truck and 0.54 lb. CO2 per mile for a compact car. In comparison, the average emissions for our Tesla based on where we charged along the way was 0.27 lb. CO2 per mile or 25% of the emissions from our truck and 49% of the emissions of a compact car. Carbon reductions are less in states that are primarily served by coal, and actual benefits differ based on the electricity mix at the time of charging, but benefits will improve as the number of renewables on the U.S. electricity grid increases. In California, for example, which already gets a large percentage of its electricity from renewables, driving an EV can reduce CO2 emissions by over 85%.
Would we do it again? You Bet! Long distance travel with an EV is possible now, and much less challenging than we anticipated. In fact, in most cases we prefer to travel using the supercharger highway than travelling with a gas-powered vehicle. Since that trip we have taken the Tesla to the Sonoma coast and camped with it. The Model Y is comfortable and easy to drive. The safety features worked well during intense traffic situations, and we found we had less road fatigue with stopping every 2 to 3 hours.
What would we do different?
- 5 weeks was too short to travel across the country and have time to see all the sights. To see the country, we would take 2 to 3 months, or break up the trip into multiple sections. There were so many areas we wanted to explore more.
- Look for lodging with charging stations as part of their amenities. This will become more prevalent as the number of EVs on the road increases.
- Either forgo camping or plan to camp more than one night at each destination so the time to pack and unpack is not wasted. There are campgrounds with electrical hook-ups that can be used to charge the car while at camp.
- We would love to see more amenities at charging stations. At a minimum, restrooms, garbage cans, and windshield washing stations are needed. Having good healthy food options nearby would also be desirable.
The future of long-distance electric vehicle traveling is here now, although limited to what EV you have. As ranges in other models improve and number of EVs on the road increases, it will be interesting to see what the impact of more EV vehicles on the road will have on the charging network. A lot of work is still needed to make it mainstream, including providing adequate charging infrastructure to match the number of EVs on the road and providing power and electricity infrastructure to handle the additional charging needs.
 U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA) 2020 Electricity Profiles by State. (https://www.eia.gov/electricity/state/)
Julie Haney is a Cool Davis board member working on the Strategic Planning subcommittee and creating amazing graphics and Bill Dakin is a member of the Cool Davis Energy Task Force.
January Climate Movie Circle: “Eating Our Way to Extinction” (online) NEWS FLASH! We’ll start the discussion with a Q&A session with the film’s lead scientist Gerard Bisshop coming to us from #Sydney, Austrailia.
January Climate Movie Circle: "Eating Our Way to Extinction" (online) - Cool Davis
Discussion Sunday, January 15, 1:30 to 3:00pm Online via Zoom