The Complicated Reality of EV Road Trips

Lessons learned taking a Tesla road trip.

Rear of red Tesla Model S while charging at Tesla Supercharger Station.

EV chargers are just one of many things to consider before an EV road trip.

Photo by The Bold Bureau/Shutterstock

The trip started in thrilling fashion, with my husband and I discovering our Tesla 3—delivered to our curb via rental car company Kyte—had a setting akin to “ludicrous speed”. We didn’t realize we were in ludicrous speed until we went from zero to 40 mph on a one-way residential street in Brooklyn in seconds, braking abruptly way before the stoplight. Not because I hit the brakes—just because I took my foot off the accelerator.

This tale may sound familiar to first-time users of an electric vehicle (EV), be it a Tesla (ours was the standard model) or an everyday battery-powered stallion. My husband and I received an introduction to EV road trips two summers ago on a weekend getaway from New York City to Montreal meant to recharge our batteries in more ways than one. We thought we were so clever. We estimated we would save on gas (it cost $28 to go 280 miles then) and didn’t even choose our first pit stop—our friendly robot car, heretofore known as “Kit,” would map the route for us.

But there are a lot of habits to unlearn after decades of pulling up to gas stations, navigating via dialed dashboards, and using brake pedals to, you know, brake. Here are a few realities every EV road-tripper should anticipate as they embark on this next generation of car travel.

Left image shows a white Tesla, right image shows an electronic screen

EVs embrace technology with features like phone apps and touchscreens.

Photos Courtesy of Laura Dannen Redman

Driving an electric vehicle requires some practice

Humble thyself when driving an EV for the first time. It’s not quite as bad as learning stick shift but some things are just . . . different. Many EV brands open with a key card or a phone app, which means you can open the car remotely or cool it off before you get in. And consider the role the “go” pedal plays: Taking a foot off the accelerator activates regenerative braking, which means the car slows and feeds power back to the battery. I barely touched the brake and had to get the feel of decelerating. Meanwhile, standard acceleration for a Tesla 3—what I thought was ludicrous—is zero to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds, aka fast enough to fling passengers against their seats and make anyone riding in the back feel like abandoning ship. Until I discovered “chill mode,” which limits acceleration, there was a lot of unintentional flinging.

The absence of a traditional dashboard—with its speedometer and gas gauge, circles and lines and arrows and numbers—can also feel unnerving. In its place is a 15-inch touchscreen that does all the necessary monitoring (battery duration, GPS, tire pressure) and entertaining (Apple Music, arcade games, “caraoke,” even a virtual fireplace and, to my kids’ delight, whoopie cushion sounds). Keeping one eye on the road and one on the touchscreen, horizontal to the driver’s eyeline, felt spasmodic. It helped to have a copilot navigate the touchscreen, especially when it came to looking for a charging station.

EV trips differ depending on location

We had a 375-mile drive ahead of us, which would normally take about six hours. In a gas car, we would stop halfway in Saratoga Springs, home to the famed race track and excellent chipotle beef chili at the Olde Bryan Inn. In a Tesla, we could go 300 miles on a single charge . . . though when the car was dropped off by Kyte, we had about 130 miles of battery life. (Note: We couldn’t just plug the car in at the house—only a DCFC, or direct current fast charger, can fill the battery in 20–30 minutes. Without that, it could take 40–50 hours, or more, to get a full charge on 120 volts.)

Kit the Robot Car had all the Tesla DCFC “Superchargers” programmed into its navigation, so it showed us the most strategic spot to “refuel”: New Paltz, 83 miles or an hour and a half away. Thankfully, this stop was next to a diner.

As of today, the state of New York has 84 Tesla Superchargers, with more being added every year as the United States continues to invest in EV infrastructure. (Look at President Biden’s Build Back Better infrastructure plan for how broadly this extends: The goal is to have 500,000 public chargers nationally by 2030.) Yet in 2023, five states accounted for nearly half of the nation’s 64,187 charging stations, according to Consumer Affairs. (California holds 25.5 percent; New York comes in second with 6.1 percent, followed by Florida, Texas, and Massachusetts.)

In the past, Tesla Superchargers could only be used by Tesla drivers, a company-man mark of ego that was eliminated in late 2021, when Tesla opened its network of Superchargers to non-Tesla EVs. There are currently Level 1 and Level 2 chargers across the USA, charging EVs in 4–10 hours (or days), as well as more DCFCs of the non-Tesla variety. The website and app ChargeFinder come in handy for tracking down all kinds of plugs.

White Tesla at a charging stop

Your charging experience can vary depending on the charging station’s location

Photo Courtesy of Laura Dannen Redman

Embrace the roadside rest station

When it comes to an EV road trip, mapping a route in advance is a little futile. Plans will likely be dashed when Tesla’s “red alert” comes on to recharge; the car really wants you to plug in around a quarter-battery.

Much like a gas station, there are about 6–8 plugs (instead of pumps) at a Supercharger, and they’re sometimes all taken. However, unlike a gas station, cars don’t pull in and out in a handful of minutes. It’s hard to know how much time a car has left to charge without peering into a car’s front dash like a creeper.

Despite our best efforts to anticipate when we would need to charge next—and what Kit would suggest—we ended up pulling off at multiple exits to find a charger with an element of charm or convenience. We made the best out of an unexpected 30-minute pit stop with freshly scooped ice cream at the gas station in who-knows-where New York. If the next way station was in a Target parking lot? Jackpot.

Was it worth it?

On a great road trip, the detours turn the journey into something as memorable as the destination. And there were definitely thrills, like the time spent with the car on autopilot, and moments of delight and serendipity. But by the time we pulled into the parking lot of Montreal’s Fairmont the Queen Elizabeth, we had been on the road for seven and a half hours, in need of a break and a beer.

The detours of the Great American (EV) Road Trip were emotionally draining, but also served big lessons—namely in slow travel and letting go of control.

Laura Dannen Redman is AFAR’s editor at large. She’s an award-winning journalist who can’t sit still and has called Singapore, Seattle, Australia, Boston, and the Jersey Shore home. She’s based in Brooklyn with her equally travel-happy husband and daughters.
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