Late last year, I wrote my review of the Tesla Motors Model S, after spending a couple of days driving the all-electric supercar around the city. I got to experience its instantaneous power, massive 17-inch touchscreen, and the froot, but not the advantages (and disadvantages) that come with having a giant high-power lithium-ion battery.
A couple of weeks ago, I hopped into a black-on-black-on-black Model S 85 — just a regular old Model S, not the high-powered P85 or dual-motor P85D, which hasn't yet landed in Australia — for a week, and drove it around a lot — just to deplete the battery, just so that I could charge it up again. Along the way, I found out a few interesting things about what it's like to own and live with an electric car. When you can't simply pull into a petrol station and fill up with 500 kilometres worth of dinosaur juice in five minutes or less, you drive a little differently.
I'll be absolutely honest with you, though — there's a problem with what I'm writing here. There's no way to get a true test of Tesla Model S ownership, though, without having a High Power Wall Connector installed at home — this is the primary charging method of the vast majority of Model S owners. It, not a Supercharger, is how you refill your Model S in most cases.
Tesla's home charging solution provides up to 10kW of power to any Model S, and you'll get 47km of range per hour from it. I still haven't used a High Power Wall Connector, and that meant that I started each Tesla-driving day with slightly less power in the battery — fine for my week-long test, but not what any Tesla owner would want. Instead, I had to make do with the 2.4kW mobile charging connector — much, much slower — but more on that later.
Supercharging: Not Exactly A Petrol Pump, But Close
Sydney has two sets of Superchargers — the Tesla Motors fast-charging stations that fill the Model S' 60-, 70- or 85kWh underbody batteries from empty to full in a matter of minutes rather than a matter of hours. You'll (theoretically) get a full 548 kilometres of range from a Supercharger in an hour — that's more than a full charge for the Model S' top 85kWh, 502km-rated battery. Of course, there's a bit of ramping up and down in charge speed as temperatures and charge states vary, but it's still ridiculously fast.
Supercharging in Australia is still in its infancy, though — the first extra-city Supercharger, in Goulburn in New South Wales on the road between Sydney and Canberra, is yet to be completed, although more still are on the way. In the next couple of years, the network will grow significantly.
Once the Supercharger network is more fleshed out, it'll be awesome. As it stands, though, it's being used in a slightly unintended way — for city-slicking Tesla drivers to top up when their batteries are running low. People like me. Although there's no reason why you wouldn't use it if you were nearby, Tesla doesn't strictly intend for the Superchargers to be used in this way.
A Supercharger is for getting enough juice in the tank to handle a big trip, not for refilling your Model S after you've been spending the week driving around the city needlessly wasting energy — exactly like I was doing, strangely enough. But whatever the intention of the Superchargers, the fact remains that they're by far the fastest method of charging a Tesla battery.
They operate at up to 120kW, faster than any other electric car charger around, and that means you can drive your Model S around 'til its battery charge is low, just like you'd drive an internal combustion engine car, then visit a fast charger for a top up. (Not that you should, by the way, once again.)
I visited the Tesla Supercharger station hidden away in the basement of The Star casino in Pyrmont, Sydney. Five Superchargers are accessible, once you find them — I had to ask an attendant where to go, then tell someone via intercom that I was here to charge my electric car, then descend a couple of levels into The Star's labyrinthine parking structure. The little dedicated area for Tesla Model S parking and charging is actually very cool, for what it's worth, and you do get a fair few sideways looks when you're hooking up your car to the tall white monolith that is a Supercharger.
I rocked up, plugged my electric supercar into charge, and... waited. It's an initially odd experience compared to visiting a petrol station, and I ended up going for a bit of a walk around Pyrmont. The casino is a nice place to waste half an hour, and that certainly helped. In any case, it didn't cost me anything. I drove in with 139km of range (about 27 per cent) and drove out with 466km (about 93 per cent) about 45 minutes later.
Overall, the short extra wait versus a petrol bowser — was worth the big boost in range, especially when it cost zero dollars — although I did get a $5 coffee. I really liked Supercharging the Tesla — it just felt cool.
Mobile Charging: A Last Resort, Though It Definitely Helps
After my Supercharging experiment, I resolved to empty the battery once more and see how the mobile wall charger went. The last night in my week-long loan of the Model S, I got home with a (slightly worrying) 96km (19 per cent) charge left in the car's 85kWh battery. It was 9PM, and I thought an overnight charge would give the Model S a healthy boost in capacity. I got home, got the mobile wall connector out of the Model S' boot, found a 25-metre extension cable in my garage, hooked the car up to my garage, and... waited. Well, to be fair, I went inside and went to bed — it was cold and I was tired.
In any case, when I awoke the next morning and unplugged the Model S' mobile charger, it was 7AM. In 10 hours of charging off the 2.4kW mobile charger, I'd moved from 19 per cent to 42 per cent charge, jumping from 96km of range to 211km of range.
To be honest, for my commuting needs — even including the extra distance I had to travel to drop the car off with the Tesla guys at their beautiful showroom in St Leonards — that extra range boost was way more than I needed. But in this world of smartphones, where we're used to waking up to a full battery, it was still a slightly unsettling experience.
This is a situation where for most Model S owners, they'd be using a High Power Wall Connector and charging their cars ten times faster than I did. But the mobile wall charger has its places — what if you were visiting a friend? What if you were heading interstate on a road trip and staying overnight at a motel?
It is, of course, limited by the infrastructure that sits between it and the power lines in the street — it's already drawing the maximum current and maximum voltage that a single power point can supply. But that, in itself, is a (very minor) limitation worth considering when you buy an electric car. The whole charging process just requires that tiny extra bit of thought compared to a fossil fuel-powered vehicle.
I think the takeaway from this is that if you want to live with a Tesla Model S, you should probably treat it like a smartphone, and keep it charged whenever you're able — and that means parking it in your driveway overnight, sucking up that sweet sweet off-peak power from your properly installed High Power Wall Connector, and getting a charge for the next day's driving. (Of course, it isn't necessary, since it'll perform just the same until it's actually low on power.)
It's not like a petrol car that you can just fill up in a couple of minutes, even if you have to wait for the guy in front of you. It's just a different approach and a different discipline, and I genuinely think it's a superior one — no more petrol station visits! You're doing it all yourself, and that's great. The mobile charger, too, is an emergency holdout, an electric derringer that just might save your bacon but that you shouldn't ever have to use.
Destination Charging: It's Not Supercharging, But It'll Do
Then there's destination charging — that's Tesla's term for a charger that fits into your life a little more seamlessly than a Supercharger you have to go out of your way to visit, but not a home charger that you can only used when you're parked overnight. Destination charging is relatively new to Australia, and it follows the same model as in the United States — a popular or convenient location can partner with Tesla to place a couple (or more) of Tesla's home-grade High Power Wall Connectors for Tesla customers to use, attracting them to park at that business.
Hotels, shopping centres, even restaurants, are some of the hundreds already in use across the US. I haven't yet tried a destination charger, but I have to say, as a reason to go on a road-trip holiday, it sounds like a great one.
If you were looking for a reason to book a fancy hotel out in the sticks, a fast Tesla charger on the premises makes perfect sense — I can't wait for this list to grow to include a place like the Hydro Majestic and Wolgan Valley, because it's an absolutely great concept.
Although I don't think any Tesla Model S road-tripper would go long-distance travelling without chucking the mobile charging connector in the boot for emergencies, destination chargers offer a more realistic way to top up when you're away from your house or a supercharger. More than being romantic or exploratory destinations, though, most of the destinations on the list are shopping centres. This actually makes a lot of sense — apart from your house, where do you park your car for the longest unbroken stretch of time?
Now all we need is for Tesla to get Model S destination chargers into popular commuter parking stations around our cities and towns — then, I think, the company's Australian charging infrastructure will have its killer app.
Update: Tesla says it has partnered with Secure Parking to bring destination charging to nine different parking stations in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Great!