Tesla Model S Road Trip: Electric Cars Make It From DC To CT

It all took less than a week.

Just days after the negative review of the Tesla Model S in The New York Times, a group of Tesla owners had finalized plans to re-create the reviewer's trip from Maryland to Groton, Connecticut.

On Saturday, some 30 electric car fans showed up at the Tesla Motors Rockville Service Center on a gloomy, cold morning in the Maryland suburb outside Washington, D.C.

They gave a festive sendoff to a group of three Tesla Model S all-electric sport sedans setting off on a trip to Groton.

The "Tesla Road Trip" would form a rebuttal of sorts to the recent New York Times story written by reporter John Broder, who took the same trip in a Model S and did not have a happy experience.

His review was titled Stalled Out on Tesla's Electric Highway, and the Times illustrated it with a large photo of the Model S being carted away on a flatbed truck.

Much back-and-forth then ensued with Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA].

Broder took his late January early February trip at Tesla's invitation. The company delivered a Model S sedan with its biggest 85 kilowatt-hour battery pack to Broder, and invited him to make use of Tesla's Supercharging Network – special high-speed, high-voltage charging stations located along I-95, at rest stops in Newark, Delaware, and Milford, Connecticut.

Saturday morning in Rockville, Tesla owners and other electric-car advocates – many of them members of the Electric Vehicle Association of Greater DC – discussed the trip, range-extending measures, and what Broder may have done wrong that would result in a shutdown that required the car to be hauled to a charging station.

Drivers and advocates alike were determined to show that the Tesla Supercharging Network and the Model S could make the trip without problems.

And they did.

The trip's route mirrored Broder's: Rockville to the Delaware charging station, then through New York City to the Connecticut charging station, followed by a leg to Groton, where Broder would spend the night, then to Stonington where Broder had dinner.

After some drivers spent the night in Groton--some plugged in their cars to condition the battery packs, others didn't--they returned along the same route. Broder ended his trip at the Tesla showroom in Manhattan. Four of the Tesla Road Trip drivers went further, since they had to return to Maryland, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere in New York.

The trip was successful: No flatbed tow trucks were needed.

Participants wanted everyone to realize that the trip was in no way sanctioned by, solicited by, or even known about in advance by Tesla Motors. It grew out of grass-roots outrage at a story that, in the eyes of Tesla owners, trashed a remarkable car due to a bad experience brought about entirely by the manner in which Broder operated the car.

Incensed owners put together the Tesla Road Trip in a matter of a couple of days. The plan was announced on the Tesla Motors Club website, and a @TeslaRoadTrip Twitter feed was established so others could "ride along" virtually.

2013 Tesla Model S before DC-to-Boston road trip, Feb 2013 [photo: Aaron Schildkraut]

2013 Tesla Model S before DC-to-Boston road trip, Feb 2013 [photo: Aaron Schildkraut]

Signs on the cars, hand-made at the Delaware rest stop, informed the curious: "@TeslaRoadTrip – Follow on Twitter" as a response to the on-the-road and rest-stop gawking by amazed drivers seeing their first-ever convoy of Tesla Model S cars. Twitter followers grew exponentially to more than 2,500 followers.

Organizer Aaron Schildkraut of Yonkers, New York, received a surprise phone call—while on the road – from George Blankenship, Tesla's vice president for sales and customer experience, who'd learned about the Road Trip via social media.

"We're just in awe of what you're doing," Blankenship said.

Nine Teslas Model S left the Rockville showroom, two as a sort of honor guard escort that went only as far as the Delaware Superchargers. One car went to New York City, where its drivers opted for dinner and a Broadway play instead of continuing to Groton.

The six cars that completed the trip started from Ocean City and Owings in Maryland; Westchester, Pennsylvania; Yonkers, New York; and Washington, D.C. Model S owner Ben Goodwin actually lives in Boston, which had been Broder's original destination. He drove all the way to the Delaware SuperCharger to start the trip with the rest of the convoy.

Owner Dante Richardson had already taken his Model S on a long-distance trip – from his home in Ocean City, Maryland, to Miami – just a few months ago, charging largely at RV parks along the way.

Long-distance travel in a Tesla Model S, he said, is a piece of cake. You just have to plan ahead.

The trip proved a number of points that effectively refute Broder's negative experience.

First, yes, low temperatures do affect batteries and you deal with it

The Model S displays real-time energy use and projected range – that is, how many more miles it can go on the current charge. If temperatures are low, some of the car's energy is diverted to keeping the batteries warm. All of this is clearly displayed.

Tesla Road Trip from MD to CT, Feb 2013 - Tesla Model S cars at Delaware SuperCharger location

Tesla Road Trip from MD to CT, Feb 2013 - Tesla Model S cars at Delaware SuperCharger location

Measures can be taken to reduce energy use, such as slowing down and moderating the climate control features. While outside temperatures were a bit colder when Broder made the trip than last weekend, Road Trip drivers did the sensible thing anyhow and lowered their cabin temperatures and speeds to save energy.

But no one's knuckles turned white, nobody's feet froze--and nobody drove at speeds much below 60 mph.

Second, you have to plan ahead

Until charging stations are as ubiquitous as gas stations, long-range travel in an electric car will take planning and a careful eye on what the car is telling the driver.

The Road Trip cars all charged up FULLY at both supercharging stations. While Broder charged up fully in Delaware, he apparently didn't do so in Connecticut. There he charged until the display showed a range of 185 miles, "well beyond the distance I intended to cover before returning to the station the next morning for a recharge and returning to Manhattan." Had he invested a few more minutes and completed the charge, the story would have been different.

Just as important, given the temperatures, he did not plug the car in overnight to keep the battery warmed. Even plugging into a standard 110-Volt household overnight would have kept his batteries warm. The Road Trip drivers proved this.

Another point--somewhat geeky, but important. The Model S has two settings, "standard" and "range," which means maximizing distance From the logs of Broder's car that Tesla examined after the fact, Broder's "full charge" in Delaware wasn't actually full. It appears that he was operating and charging in standard mode, so the battery charged to maximum on that setting--but less than 100 percent.

Tesla Road Trip from MD to CT, Feb 2013 - Dante Richardson driving Tesla Model S w/sign in window

Tesla Road Trip from MD to CT, Feb 2013 - Dante Richardson driving Tesla Model S w/sign in window

Had Broder set the charging to Range mode, and plugged in overnight, he very likely would have had no problems. Whether he knew about standard vs. range charging is another question, although it's neatly spelled out in the Owner's Manual.

To test different scenarios, two of the Road Trip cars did not plug in overnight – to replicate the Broder experience—and two did. Those that did had a bit more range in the morning than those that did not. Even so, all the cars made it back to the Connecticut charging station without any problem.

The Road Trip drivers all said that the range issue and subsequent towing could have been avoided by Broder had he managed the car's energy properly, charged fully, and most importantly, charged overnight.

Third, Tesla support is amazing

One Road Trip cars had a problem: It would not accept a full charge at the Supercharger in Delaware, and two chargers stopped working after that car was plugged in. A quick phone call to Tesla support in California resulted in the company pushing new software codes to the ailing car and to reset both Superchargers. All the cars charged, and completed the trip.

Owner Lauren Knausenberger and her husband Erich had bought the car only a week ago. "You have mission control behind you," she said later. "We had an issue specifically with finishing a charge on a SuperCharger."

"If there's a problem with a normal car you take it to a mechanic," she marveled. "We had a choice between driving the car to the 'mechanic,' having someone come fix it, or getting a software patch on real time--which was incredibly convenient, just beyond cool."

Later in the journey, the Knausenbergers got a flat tire. Their Model S actually told them it had a tire problem. After adding air, they were able to drive two hours to Boston.

"Tesla in Boston opened on Sunday, just to replace our tire and charge [the car] us while they did it," Knausenber continued. "Note that we were driving in the snow on 21-inch summer performance tires, and still made it. We passed two Jeeps with flat tires on the side of the road."

But all the Road Trip drivers agree with Broder on one point: The Tesla Model S is a technological wonder.

Tesla Road Trip from MD to CT, Feb 2013 - Japanese tourists flock around Tesla Model S

Tesla Road Trip from MD to CT, Feb 2013 - Japanese tourists flock around Tesla Model S

This trip was really about more than the newspaper story, of course, or even the Model S. It was about people who passionately believe that the era of the fossil fuel-powered transportation is ending – and good riddance.

Road Trip participants – all early adopters of this technology – want to bring others into the fold so that transportation is not reliant on fossil fuels and all the baggage that carries in terms of the environment and national security. It doesn't hurt that Tesla is a U.S. company – another positive point for many.

A final point: Everywhere the convoy traveled, the cars generated great interest. Onlookers stopped to shoot photos of the cars as they charged up. They asked questions, they gawked, they asked to sit in the cars. Other drivers gave the Teslas thumbs-up on the road.

The whole experience was like traveling with the stars in a rock band. But here's to the day that trips like this one will soon be everyday events far from worthy of news reporting.

Elvia H. Thompson is Co-Founder of Annapolis Green, an organization that promotes sustainable living in the area around Maryland's capital city through social media, networking events, a weekly radio program and online information sharing. A long-time public relations professional, she blogs for Patch, the local Conference and Visitors' Bureau, and other organizations. She rode along on the Tesla Road Trip, and she now wishes someone would buy her a Tesla Model S.

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