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Monday, July 14, 2014

June Trip 2014 - Part 2: When Traffic Attacks

Well.  This is it.   This is the post where it all falls apart.  Stress.  Anxiety.  Frustration.  Near disaster.
Okay, maybe that's a little dramatic.
Remember when you were a kid and took your first ride on a roller coaster?  You were convinced you were going to die, that catastrophe would forever be associated with your name and that ride-- a nice plaque maybe, to commemorate the greasy smudge where your existence ended.  You shook with nervousness and built up a wall of worry that even the stock brokers bit their nails over...   and then you went on the coaster.
And it thrilled you and you looked back afterwards, laughing and smiling, and forgot about all the drama that had led up that point.  Suddenly you realized you'd been making a HUGE DEAL over nothing.  That coaster was impeccably designed despite your reluctance to trust it.  If only you'd known...


Looking back on our trip -- even a few days afterwards, but especially now-- we realized that we'd made some dumb miscalculations and we'd been reluctant to trust the technology saving ourselves from worse circumstances only by making some (seemingly) bold decisions in the 11th hour to overcorrect for the mess we'd created.   And as huge a deal as it was to us at the time, it ended up being completely inconsequential and is completely avoidable for you.  If only WE'D known...

The biggest frustration for this trip-- admittedly partly because we didn't trust the car yet-- was that getting from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia meant venturing well beyond our comfort zone when the Superchargers ended.  It would be easy if there were just 1-2 more Superchargers on the PA Turnpike route, but from Somerset to even the Tesla store in King of Prussia is over 220 miles.  Full charges at Somerset or Hagerstown are just short of where we were going north of Philly, and especially problematic because we were actually going on to Princeton that night for the wedding rehearsal.    So a combination of our limited experience trusting the car and a lack of Superchargers on the best route meant we handcuffed ourselves to a more Southerly route.  This will be rectified in time (permitting issues have delayed the Harrisburg/Carlisle Supercharger) but until then it will be a major annoyance on a very busy route.  My advice until then?  Stretch the range and drive slower on the Turnpike.  Just do it.

In our case, leaving from Hagerstown, we'd start at 60 rated miles (buffer) as a baseline and with Newark 135 miles from Hagerstown, we'd only need about 185 miles of rated range to get there-- and we had nearly 230 when we finished lunch.   And then came Baltimore.  And then came traffic.  Nothing winds up the stress of traveling with a firm schedule than traffic.  It's hard to just sit back, realize you're helpless, and breathe deeply.  Especially when there are so many idiots jockeying from lane to lane just to get one extra car length ahead.  It only adds to the erratic speeds and makes the overall flow worse for everyone.
If our first mistake was our route choice, our second mistake was the day we chose to travel.  It was Friday.  It was late June.  A major highway around Wilmington, DE was closed for construction.  And everyone from DC/Baltimore and apparently all of Philly/New York City were converging on the lone remaining highway through Wilmington on their way to and from the beaches.  The Newark Supercharger is, quite unfortunately, located on this same highway.  We saw the traffic flow map on the navigation system going from yellow to red but were unable (or should I say "powerless"?) to route around it because we HAD to get to the Supercharger.

Don't get me wrong-- even in the hot weather and slow traffic the Model S is very efficient.  After all, it doesn't really take much battery power to NOT move the car.  And let the record show that if we WERE able to charge at our destination (anything more than a wall outlet.. which we also didn't have access to) we could have bypassed the entire mess and gone a more direct route to Philadelphia.  But that's dealing with facts that are irrelevant.  We needed more power and it was where it was and we needed it when we needed it.  And that was hugely frustrating and we all grew crankier and more temperamental as the minutes ticked by without ever going over 5mph.
After watching the clock moving faster than the cars around us for what seemed like hours, we finally reached the Newark Supercharger.  We were about 2 hours later than we had anticipated and with the wedding rehearsal looming our schedule was growing tighter and tighter by the minute.  We still had 78 miles of range-- technically enough to reach the Hamilton, NJ Supercharger which was also on the way, but way too close for comfort to attempt.  Compounding the beach and weekend traffic was the onslaught of rush hour.  We'd pinched ourselves between two major cities (and hundreds of minor ones) right in the midst of Friday's PM commuters.

The Newark Supercharger was pretty busy-- magnified because it only has 4 stalls compared to 6 at all the other ones we were going to see.  When we pulled up there were already 2 cars charging but they were splitting the same Supercharger and when I talked to one of the owners it was clear he didn't know about the ideal charging strategy I explained in PART 1.  Weirdly we found ourselves again with a nice grey-red-grey car combination (see first picture in this posting).  As for the charging speed, it didn't appear to be as fast as expected so either the pedestals were mismarked or the battery temperature was slowing down the current draw (from being in hot slow traffic on a hot day for so long before plugging in).   We were only getting about half the power as Hagerstown-- which only adding yet another layer of "what the??!" to the afternoon as the clock continued its advance.

There were only 3 cars there at a time (counting us) but never less than 3...  with 2 cars turning over.  As a couple of the owners tried to start up small talk it was hard to keep smiling and putting on a friendly face as my mind raced in the backyard doing range and time calculations.  What normally is a huge perk to being a Supercharger user (meeting interesting fellow owners) can quickly become slightly irritating if you're under the gun and scrambling to make sure your shiny new car will get you where you need to be ON TIME.  Yes, a lovely dog you have there... Oh?  A nice leisurely drive to outer Mongolia?  Very interesting....  must be nice to wander like that BUT I HAVE TO GET ANOTHER 80 MILES IN TRAFFIC!!  Uh..hem...  Just keep smiling, just keep smiling...
When not stressed out of your mind, one of the nice things about the charging stops is that in addition to stretching your legs, using the bathrooms, and grabbing a snack, you get a moment to examine the next leg in your trip.  The big 17" main screen is just a beautiful and powerful mapping tool with real time traffic and it's easy to toggle between destinations...

...which is what you have to do WHEN YOU ARE RUNNING LATE!!  AHH!!!!

We'd had great plans.  Smooth, elegant, and sociable.  We were SUPPOSED to arrive in the Germantown home of my wife's sister in time to unload our luggage and hang out for a while.  The ladies would take off for the rehearsal early and the men would go in the Tesla a hour later, with everyone leisurely and changed out of their traveling clothes into their nice rehearsal/dinner clothes in the comfort of a family home.
There was just no way.  Newark's location meant a trip to Germantown would take us right through the heart of Philadelphia's downtown.   We'd never make it.  We'd be stuck in traffic for HOURS more, running out of both time and range while missing the rehearsal anyway.  Okay.  So Philadelphia is out and our brother-in-law was going to have to ride the train into Trenton for the rehearsal, no Tesla ride for him!  The next option was to rendezvous with the other out-of-town family who were staying in a hotel in Trenton.  We'd still be able to change clothes and maybe have some visiting time.   If we got there soon enough, we could even park the car (same some range) and use the provided wedding shuttle bus to the rehearsal and dinner up in Princeton.  Yes.  That would work!  We could make that!
By the time we figured that out, the car had more than doubled it's range and since we only needed about 80 miles we were in great shape to stay on our amended schedule.  We yanked the plug early and zoomed out of the parking lot, rerouted into New Jersey and skirted around the city.  Everything was looking great... except we were STILL in traffic and STILL running later and later...

Another frenzied round of map calculations and phone calls (there was no way we were going to make the shuttle bus) we diverted ourselves AGAIN to go straight to the rehearsal.  We'd either change clothes on the way or find a room there to do so (we ended up in a quiet room behind the church altar).  The timing was just too tight.  Skipping the Trenton hotel also meant we were skipping our next Supercharger opportunity at Hamilton.   No matter-- not being late for the big events was more important and we actually ended up at the church 30 minutes before everyone else by short-cutting our original plans!  WHEW.  
Since I was the only one not actually IN the wedding (and rather than spoil the surprise for tomorrow), I left after greeting everyone and found my way to the Hamilton Supercharger.  Pulling in with 85 miles range the goal was simple-- get as much juice as I had time for to still make the rehearsal dinner punctually.  We'd need enough to do the Philly/Princeton trip 3 more times plus back to Newark.  That's 45 miles 3x plus 50 to Newark = 185 miles... plus buffer.  

The rest of the family hopped the wedding bus to the rehearsal dinner so I didn't need to worry about going back for them.  I was happy to see the Hamilton Supercharger is one of the newer, more powerful ones.  It started dumping 300+ amps continuously into the car at a rate equivalent to 377 mph!!  WOW.  Cooling fans I didn't even know the car HAD started whirring to life...  and once I saw that, I strolled into the adjoining Barnes and Noble to smell the new books.  Ahhh.....
I don't remember what kind of range I had when I finally pulled the plug and headed to dinner.  I just know it was plenty to get us home, plenty for overnight, and plenty for all the driving we would be doing the next day to and from the wedding events.  AND I made it to dinner on time.

But it was not enough.  It was well short of what I wanted to get.  With buffer, I was hoping for about 240 miles on the car... and we had well under that.  We would have enough to get back to Philly and then back the next day for the wedding AND back to Philly that night-- but we would not be able to make Newark the next morning.  Again, if we had a charging option while we slept, it would have been super easy.  I think even a regular 110 outlet would have trickle charged enough miles overnight and up until our midday departure to make sure we could reach Delaware.  Destination charging is a luxury we'll never take for granted and are grateful for anyone willing to provide even the small plug...  but there is still quite a bit of prejudice/ignorance about EVs and Tesla (in particular) and sometimes that leads to unenthusiastic hosts, whether they be relatives or hotels (or both).  It will affect where we stay in the future, to be sure.

Our day didn't go AT ALL as planned.  We were already exhausted from lack of sleep the week prior to the trip (no idea why) plus a long day of driving and fighting traffic.  Tired and with plans crumbling around us we were not in very festive moods when we finally arrived in Princeton, NJ-- though a quick change of clothes helped refresh all of us and refocus our demeanor.

The car had done everything right, it was WE who had failed to see the landmines set before us (both by ourselves and by the gaps in the Supercharger network on the Turnpike)... and in the end it was our spontaneous gambles that managed to get us everywhere ON TIME and with a generous margin on the car.  No range anxiety ever-- again, we'd never gone below 60 miles of range (aka a Nissan Leaf's worth) but we had a LOT of "TIME anxiety" and charging anxiety was very high as we kept deferring opportunities or parking up places without any.  I knew we'd have to make up that charge time somewhere/somehow....

What we should have done was top off in Somerset or Hagerstown and stretched into Philly from the suburbs above it, recharging at the Tesla store/service centers there.  The good news is that, like a kid who falls in love with a roller coaster once over his fears, we were over our long-distance travel fears and loving the road trip capabilities of Serena.

The bad news was that we had to do it AGAIN 2 days later...

Click HERE to read about the road trip from the beginning.
Click HERE for Part 3: A Capitol Idea.

Video clips from the first leg of our road trip-- if you haven't seen them already:
Thanks for visiting us here, CLICK to read more at www.TeslaPittsburgh.com and check out the videos on our YouTube channel at www.YouTube.com/NZCUTR.