A few days ago I had the opportunity to drive a Tesla Model S from Zurich to Berlin. Of course I took it. I don’t own a car but I love road trips, especially on the German highway system, which in large parts has no speed limit (I still think this is one of the most crazy facts about otherwise safety-aware Germany). Of course I also was curious about the experience of driving an electrical car of the U.S. company that single-handedly is disrupting the car industry.
I decided to describe my experience in few paragraphs. Most Tesla trip reports and reviews are created by fans and therefore come with a certain emotional coloring. I’ll explain the reason for that later on. I however consider myself neutral. I take the position of an Average Joe who knows little about cars, who is not very passionate about them overall but who has done a couple of significant road trips over the past decade through Germany and across Europe. So I can make at least some comparisons.
During my studies I worked for a car rental company, mostly cleaning them, but occasionally I got to transfer vehicles from one station to another. I still remember vividly how I transferred a powerful Audi A8 from the German city of Hannover to Berlin and how simultaneously amazing and scary it felt to pelt along at 250 km/h. Mostly amazing.
However, slightly disappointed, I have to conclude the Model S is not yet suitable for those with a need for speed.
The Model S certainly has an incredible acceleration and can easily reach 200 km/h and far beyond (I didn’t exceed 195 km/h). However, cruise control is limited to max 150 km/h, which is Tesla’s way of saying: “Better don’t drive faster”. And indeed, one shouldn’t: Once you reach a very high speed, the power consumption per kilometer becomes tremendous, shortening your total reach. That’s not different to driving cars with combustion engines of course. But their tanks are large enough to still ensure that you do not need to refuel every 1-2 hours. The Model S however is still significantly limited by the battery capacity and charging speed. In fact, that’s the major bottleneck for electric cars right now and Tesla hopes to solve it soon with radically improved batteries produced in its new “Gigafactory”.
On the roughly 800 kilometer trip after starting almost fully charged, I had to stop 4 times to recharge electricity at Tesla’s own “Superchargers”, with each charge taking about 30 minute on average. The Superchargers are conveniently located at major highway rest areas and the car’s navigation system includes the charging stops automatically when planning the trip. One can use these breaks for a snack, a short walk or a smartphone session. Still I felt that the charging times exceeded my patience. I am more the type who powers through with maybe one or two short 10-minute breaks. Not possible with a Tesla. In fact, the net travel time is pretty fixed from the beginning. If you drive really fast, your charging stops will take longer, eating up the time savings. So the best strategy probably is to just cruise along at 130 km/h and to arrive relaxed. It might be the safest strategy as well. However, admittedly, when I drive a speedy car powered by 306 horse powers on the Autobahn, I have the urge to take advantage of it. One day, with self-driving cars, this will become impossible anyway. But while it lasts…
So that’s the negative part. However, aside from the pleasant silence of the electrical engine, the charging is also the magical aspect of the whole Tesla experience. Because whenever you stop at one of the Tesla-operated and branded Superchargers, you feel privileged and very special. While you watch owners of conventional cars purchasing gas at the nearby gas station, you connect your Tesla to one of the several, flashy looking chargers (that are lightened up at night) and provide it with complementary electricity. At that moment, you know that you are part of the future. Part of a still small, selected crowd that pushes reality closer to this future. I can totally see how this creates a powerful brand loyalty and enthusiasm among Tesla owners. The company has successfully built a system which makes owners of its cars feel special and creates an emotional attachment. That’s a huge achievement and a critical factor on the way to mainstream success. The first owners of iPhones back in 2007 must have experienced similar feelings.
Both parts of my verdict have a limited shelf life: The direction of the progress for electrical cars is very clear: The capacities of batteries will increase, the charging process will get shorter, and the number of Superchargers will increase, giving Tesla drivers more choices for their route planning. Eventually, one or two charging stops will be enough for a trip of the length of mine. However, on the flip-side, the perceived exclusivity and superiority of operating and charging Tesla in public will wear off as well, once electrical cars become more common. Today’s Tesla owners should enjoy it while it lasts.
P.S. I didn’t try the Autopilot (I am waiting for the real self-driving capability, not something half-baked), just the adaptive cruise control which works almost flawlessly.
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