It’s 209 miles from the parking lot of a Chili’s in Barstow, California, where we are, to the parking lot of a Carl’s Jr. in Kingman, Arizona, where we need to go. I’m in a rented Tesla Model S, a sleek, battery-powered electric vehicle, with a travel companion. We’re just about fully charged, and the car estimates it can travel 247 miles before we need more juice. That’s a buffer of 38 miles, which should be more than enough to reach Kingman. We’ll soon realize it isn’t.
The seemingly random parking lots I’m traveling between are sites of a new nationwide network of fast battery charging stations for drivers of Tesla’s Model S. The company calls them “Superchargers” — direct-current battery charging stations of a proprietary design that can bring a nearly dead Model S battery to full charge in a little over an hour. That’s much faster than the roughly 8 hours it would take by plugging into a wall outlet in your garage. Tesla’s official reason for building this private network of battery charging infrastructure (currently up to 80 stations and counting) is to encourage Model S drivers to take road trips — a concept otherwise unthinkable in a car powered only by a battery. I’m testing it out on a weekend road trip from Los Angeles into Arizona and back.
For drivers of electric vehicles, calculations of distance and range are of near-constant concern. How far you want to go must always be less far than your battery can take you. The Nissan Leaf, for example, can get up to 84 miles of range on a full charge — enough for most people’s daily commutes and errands, but hardly a long-distance option. The estimated 265-mile range of a fully equipped Tesla Model S has allayed some concerns about having enough juice to get where you want to go. Coupled with the Supercharger network, it’s made the idea of taking a battery-powered road trip feasible — even cross-country. Feasible, I quickly find, is not the same thing as simple.