2016 Tesla Model X: Supercharger Shortcut on the Return Leg From Lake Tahoe
by Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing on September 30, 2016
I step around the power cord that juts from the rear flank of our 2016 Tesla Model X, pop open the hatch and arrange my bags in the luggage well. After unplugging our Lake Tahoe hotel's complimentary Destination charger, I click a ballpoint and note the battery's full status and new range — 248 miles — in the Tesla's logbook. Jay stands nearby tossing his gear into the trunk of his Toyota Mirai, which I know has less than half a tank of hydrogen because I parked it last night.
We exit the hotel lot together and line up at a red light, waiting to turn left. The border runs down the middle of the street we're on. I briefly consider opening my door and stamping my foot across the dashed center line so part of me can be in Nevada, but then the left arrow turns green and I drive my entire self into the state instead.
The landscape changes instantly. Our hotel in South Lake Tahoe, California had been typical of its neighbors — low, sprawling, no more than two or three stories. But now we're on the main drag of Stateline, Nevada, flanked by tall glass casino hotels. A large marquee announces that Al Jarreau is coming to town. Isn't he the guy that sings like a guitar? No, that's George Benson.
A half mile later we come to a T intersection. I line up to turn right and begin the fairly direct 445-mile route down the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Jay must turn left and head north to a town called Truckee near the Donner Pass (yes, THAT Donner Pass) so he can fill up with the hydrogen he needs to get back to Sacramento and finally head home along a 532-mile route.
My 87-mile advantage is today's test in a nutshell. Yesterday's same-route contest focused on refueling time; today we're acknowledging the actual state of each car's refueling network. Tesla has Destination chargers and a fairly extensive Supercharger network that offers me a couple of route choices. The Mirai has neither of those advantages.
My hand involuntarily flies up to shield my eyes from the morning sun as soon as I make the turn. I fold the sun visor into position, but it's no use. The Tesla's helicopter windshield is doing me no favors.
Lake Tahoe is nestled in a natural basin, so my route snakes up to another summit. My progress is briefly impeded by a slow-moving semi that eventually moves over after a few impatient minutes. I quickly regain my pace and crest the summit, but soon after I get bottled up behind an even slower motorhome towing a Jeep on the sinuous downslope.
It takes a few miles before the kinks finally straighten and a passing zone emerges. The Model X squirts past easily. A couple miles later the navigation system tells me to turn left at the next four way intersection, which is odd because that's north. I do it anyway and loop up a mile or so to connect with southbound Highway 395 — the road I will be on much of the day — in a place called Linden.
Linden is one of those highway towns that are long overdue for a bypass. It's slow going until I leave the city limits, where the road narrows to two lanes and the speed limit goes up after a final red light. At mile zero I programmed my ultimate destination into the Tesla's navigation system, and it knows my battery has barely budged off the full mark — still at 238 miles — thanks to all the downhill running from Tahoe to Linden. Nevertheless, the car insists I stop at the Supercharger in Gardnerville, Nevada, just 18 miles ahead.
Ridiculous. The Mammoth Lakes Supercharger is only 116 miles in front of me. I ignore what Elon's software is telling me and roll onward.
The road tightens and twists through mountainous canyons. It's beautiful, and many of my fellow travelers are dawdling tourists that are in no hurry whatsoever. A passing zone emerges and I sail past all but one of them: a tanker truck.
It's the motorhome scenario all over again until I finally find a legal way around him some minutes later. It's proving to be one of those days. Or maybe it's like this every summer day on Highway 395. Probably so.
Near Bridgeport, California, I start to encounter a string of small construction zones with flaggers where road crews have the highway necked down to one lane. It seems they're repairing last year's winter damage before next winter arrives. I get lucky most of the time and only get held up at two of them for no more than five minutes each.
With 80 miles of range remaining I arrive at the Mammoth Lakes Supercharger, some 2 hours and 42 minutes after I departed the hotel. It's an interesting layout, with pull-through spots stacked two deep. If the approach weren't so tight, I could see myself pulling the Model X through with a trailer in tow and only blocking one extra space.
The Lone Pine Supercharger is my next target, and it's only 100 miles down the road. The computer says I can unplug and get moving after just 8 minutes with 118 miles in the battery. But the Mammoth station is a few minutes off the highway, so the total amount of time I've lost is something like 15 or 20 minutes.
The Linden slowdown made me lose confidence in the shortcut-finding ability of the Tesla's navigation system. I've been running Google Maps on my phone alongside it ever since, and as I approach Bishop, California, it points out a 6-minute savings that avoids the downtown area altogether. Downtown is always a mess, and this route is a clear winner. It's scenic, too, and I stop for about 20 seconds to snap a quick picture.
I've got 30 miles of range left when I arrive at the four-stall Lone Pine Supercharger, where parking is tight and maneuvering room is scarce. It's hidden on the edge of town, behind the film history museum that honors Hollywood's extensive use of the nearby Alabama Hills.
I wander off to find food. This will be a longer stop, but I only need to travel 113 miles to the Mojave Supercharger. The good restaurants are sit-down places that are a bit too far away on foot for my current "Beat Jay" mindset. I settle for a quick snack and an iced tea at McDonalds.
I unplug after 35 minutes with 155 miles in the tank, which seems like an adequate surplus. It's nearly 100 degrees outside, however, and the air conditioner has to work extra-hard given that I'm sitting under a humongous contact lens of a windshield. There's also a moderate headwind, resulting in consumption that's higher than I am comfortable with.
It's higher than the car would like, too, and it says so before I'm halfway to my destination by issuing a warning that advises me to keep my speed below 70 mph.
I roll into Mojave with 16 miles remaining. The Supercharger stalls are lined up in front of a Mexican food joint, so I plug in and order a burrito and some more iced tea. I have no idea where Jay is. Behind me, surely. But is he catching up and about to pass because of this final stop? I figure it could go either way.
A couple of white Model S sedans pull in while I'm munching away. One has a road bike mounted to a rooftop bike rack, while the other has a full-suspension downhill mountain bike stuffed into the hatch atop the folded backseat. Thank you for the material for a future topic.
Home is 95 miles down the road, but consumption was worse than expected on the last run and I know there's a bit of elevation change ahead. But I know the weather is bound to get cooler, too. How long do I wait? I pull the plug after 32 minutes with 126 miles showing on the range meter.
The rest of the ride is fairly straightforward. Traffic isn't bad, but it still dictates my pace. It gives me time to think about the two cars.
Our Model X is a rolling math problem, complete with charts and graphs and apps and decisions. I'm always factoring in hills and wind and traffic and heat, and I'm trying to predict these factors an hour or so into the future. I find myself thinking thoughts along the lines of, "If I stay plugged in 5 minutes more maybe I can drive 5 mph faster. Assuming I can drive 5 mph faster, which represents the bigger time savings?"
The Mirai, on the other hand, is a normal car in that there's no strategy involved. You just gas (and I do mean gas) and go. Every stop is a full refill, and it takes 5 minutes no matter what — unless you're a newbie at a station and have to watch The Video, in which case it's 8 or 9 minutes. You can eat whatever and wherever you want, because there's no pressing need to eat whatever food is within walking distance of your filling station. You've got time to play with.
There's no doubt that hydrogen station availability is a problem, but that will be solved in the fullness of time. The northbound leg results showed us just how much smoother, faster and relaxing a hydrogen fuel cell car can be on a long road trip if there are stations to support it.
At 4:37 pm I pull down the ramp of the parking garage, 8 hours and 37 minutes after I set out. It takes a little time for my eyes to adjust as I guide the Tesla toward its parking spot. There are few cars in the editorial parking area on this late Friday afternoon, but one of them is the Toyota Mirai.
Jay walks down the ramp to gloat. He was standing on the sidewalk snapping the above picture when I nosed into the garage. We compare notes and figure he's beaten me by 10 minutes.
Close? Not in my book. I had an 87-mile head start with a full battery. Sure, I was held up here and there, but I'm sure Jay has similar stories. Fact is, Jay would have creamed me by two hours had there been a station in Lake Tahoe and just one other in Lone Pine.
Someday such stations will exist if this hydrogen concept has legs, which I'm thinking it does after this side-by-side road trip shootout. Build more stations in more places and I'm a convert. As for you automakers, do something about tank placement and trunk space. And let's put your best stylists on the case.
Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @ 9,160 miles