Remote Trip Planner Test

I recently took a long trip through Southern California and tested the features of the Tesla Trip planner in a very remote environment.  This particular excursion was not a simple long drive to a single destination estimating the amount of charge needed at each supercharger as I had focused on in my earlier testing of the trip planner with software 7.0.  On this road trip I drove to, through, and out of Death Valley National Park – one of the most remote (and beautiful) places on earth with an updated version of 7.1.  This post discusses both the current pitfalls with the trip planner software but also some advice for Tesla drivers in remote areas.

The software itself is helpful but the driver still needs to understand how the software works and not get too nervous with strange behavior.  The software has improved since my earlier test as the number of false warnings has decreased but many issues still remain.  I also discovered a new problem that I had not seen before, but likely was part of the earlier versions.

Always Roughly Plan Your Journey

On any road trip you need to plan to some extent your itinerary.  For people who don’t like rigid schedules, I would still recommend estimating distances and travel time for various options on a given day.  With gas stations ubiquitous, an ICE vehicle can travel without worrying about filing up, but with an electrical vehicle in remote locations — even with superchargers — some up front planning is recommended.

Tesla recently added some superchargers enabling driving to Death Valley.  A few owners had earlier ventured to Death Valley by using a charger at the RV park in the middle of the national park.  I was traveling during a busy season (where RV charging can be more challenging), and I also did not want to stay in the park during this visit.  I was going to depend upon the three supercharger stations in and around Death Valley:  Lone Pine, Inyokern and Beatty.  Also in and out of Death Valley National Park only has a few places where you might be able to charge in a true emergency such as in Panamint Springs.  But there are many long sections such as between Panamint Springs and Searless Valley where there are almost no buildings of any kind.

triangle

Superchargers Surrounding Death Valley and Distances Between Them

On a quick look at the map, one could think that charging will be no issue.  The maximum distance is 141 miles going through Searles Valley and Trona between the Beatty and Inyokern chargers.  Unfortunately most mapping software wants you to drive through Olancha.  The road through Searles Valley is more interesting, but currently there is a few miles of unpaved gravel road that is under repair.  I like using the supercharge.info map more than the Tesla version when planning as the Tesla map is in only in black and white.

The simple mileage numbers do not tell the whole story.  The next step is to look at the evtripplanner.com software numbers.

evtripplannerdv

EVtripplanner Estimates From Beatty, NV supercharger to Inyokern, CA supercharger

In some ways although the energy usage is accurate, the overall elevation number is a bit misleading.  Starting at Beatty at 3,300 feet, you drop into Death Valley at about 0, but then need to climb back up to Towne Pass near Panamint Springs which is another 5,000 feet in elevation.  The supercharger at Inyokern is at 2,434 feet.  Although you regenerate a lot of electricity on the downgrade, you can’t recover all of it.  Both algorithms in evtripplanner and Tesla’s software do consider the topography during the trip to estimate energy usage.

Watching Energy Use While Driving

You have done a lot of planning and now are actually on your trip.  There are several screens you can look at to see if you can make it to your destination safely.  But unfortunately Tesla still has not added waypoints, making planning in the car quite difficult.  I like to flip between four different indicators when I’m watching my energy consumption as I’m showing in the photo.

consumption.jpg

On the dash if you have the energy widget up it will tell you some useful summary information since the last time you charged.  Also you can dynamically watch your energy usage while driving.  I watch the orange / green power meter.  On a gross level, if you are in the green you know you are regenerating energy.  If the indicator is above 0, the color is orange.  When trying to save energy, the consumption should be between 20 and 40 kW in “normal” conditions.

I would really like this screen to be redesigned.  The Miles Per Hour indicator is very large and prominent with the numeric display.  Half the tachometer is used up to also indicate the speed of the vehicle with the blue line.  I never look at this and the only thing remotely interesting is the listing of how fast the car could technically go.  When trying to be cautious of the energy usage, the scale between 0 and 40kW is pretty small.  I would really like the entire gauge to be energy usage not half of it to allow me to monitor instantaneous energy usage on the dash itself.

I can also monitor energy usage on two screens on the touchscreen .  The consumption tab is the most interesting of the two tabs. Consumption lists average or instantaneous use over 5, 15 or 30 mile sections and at times can be too much information with too many options.

A graph also exists of the overall trip energy consumption as shown in the upper right.  This shows you how much energy the trip planner thinks you will use over the course of your trip marked with the grey line.  As you are driving and do not match its estimates, the route is shown in green.  I don’t use this screen much but it can be useful as it indicates the route’s topography changes.  A flat route is a simple line, a mountainous routes will show curves in the graph.

Visiting within the Park

Of course when visiting the park, you simply do not want to drive through it.  You want to stop and look around and hike a bit.  This requires more energy planning depending upon how far you want to go.  A drive from Beatty through Badwater, the lowest point in North America at -282 feet, and to Inyokern would be pushing a 85kW battery.

badwater

EVtripplanner Estimates Using a Waypoint of Badwater

The estimate is that is 207.7 miles and 56kWh under ideal conditions.  My battery has already degraded by 8%, so I actually have a 78kW battery.   In the summer, Death Valley is one of the hottest places on earth and filled with European tourists.  In the winter it can be extremely cold.  On this trip it was a very pleasant winter 80 degrees, but I would not feel comfortable driving all the way down to Badwater and expecting to arrive safely at the Inyokern supercharger.  I don’t know the actual weather or wind conditions when I will be driving and I don’t really want to drain my battery down to zero in such a remote location.

Record Wildflowers

My trip happened to coincide with a large wildflower bloom.  This last year we have finally gotten some rain in California, and there was actually a bad flood in Death Valley.  One result was a very large bloom of wildflowers in the far southeastern part of the park.  To get to the best wildflowers clearly required a return to the Beatty supercharger.  The photo does not give justice to the sublime beauty of the desert.

wildflowers

Wildflowers In Death Valley February 2016 Near Ashford Mills

Electrical Options

I did decide to ask various folks at Furnace Creek if I could charge my Tesla. The RV park was full.  I inquired at the Furnace Creek Ranch and they clearly stated only guests could charge.  The visitor center also had no options.  My last place to inquire was at the Timbisha Shoshone Indian Reservation within the park.

I have passed by this small reservation for many years wondering why they never offered any visitor services as they are in the middle of the park.  To my great surprise they finally opened up a small eatery.  I’m not sure what I am more passionate about saving the environment or social justice.  I very happily ate an Indian Taco for lunch made with that delicious fry bread along with some shaved ice.  I encouraged them to install an electric charging station as Tesla owners could top off while eating lunch.

shoshone

Delicious Fry Bread at the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe’s  Eatery in Death Valley

When I finished my excursion to the flower fields, the trip planner went a little crazy again.  Instead of heading directly back to Beatty, it wanted me to continue on south through the park and into Nevada on a longer course to the Beatty supercharger using a lot more energy and time (shown on the lower right).  The day earlier I had the same problem when driving into the park as the trip planner wanted me to go up and around the park (shown on the upper left).

avoidingthepark

Trip Planner Twice Wanted to Loop Around Death Valley National Park on Longer Routes

After driving in the correct direction to Beatty, the trip planner returned to the correct routing.  Over the last ten years or so as GPS devices have become popular, I have a recurrent thought that the current generation of people will begin to loose their sense of direction, or people with a weak sense of direction will learn to depend upon apps like Waze without really understanding where they are headed.   In remote areas with a Tesla, a driver needs to truly understand their route.

Lost Connection

When traveling from Bakersfield over to Lone Pine two days earlier, I drove on Highway 178 that was in a deep river valley with no buildings.  Many parts of this road had no internet connections, so the software weakness that I reported in my earlier report still exists.  The trip planner got completely confused and told me I was going to be out of energy before I arrived at the supercharger.

falsewarnings

False Warnings From Trip Planner When Cell Connection is Lost

Summary

Until Tesla’s trip planner adds waypoints, EVtripplanner is an essential tool before beginning a journey.  With 7.1, the software still issues false warnings and wrong directions.  Until EV charging stations are ubiquitous, drivers need to plan their trips ahead of time.

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Release 7.0 for Classic Teslas

Classic Teslas like mine do not have the hardware that enables the autopilot features.  The new software release that all cars received last Friday works for both the Classic Teslas and the ones with the autopilot hardware, which costs $2,500.  This release has a few significant highlights and unfortunately a couple of lowlights for Classic Cars such as mine.

1. The look and feel has changed in several small ways.  Some of the fonts and style has changed a little bit with the current fashionable flat 2-D icons.  When Apple first released their 2-D icons, I missed the older ones, but I largely think this is just a current style trend that will eventually change again.

Much More Useful Display of Driving Stats Since Beginning a Trip and Last Charge

Much More Useful Display of Driving Stats Since Beginning a Trip and Last Charge

2. For long road trips, the information on the dashboard for energy usage is much clearer.  Now instead of looking at a strange screen with Trip A and Trip B monitors, you are looking at the information since the last time you started the car on top, and since your last charge below.  On long road trips when I was running dangerously low on energy, I would always bring up the Trip screen to get this information since last charge.   The Trip A and B information is still available on the 17” screen if people plan their energy use that way.

I like this change because I can monitor how much energy I have used since my last charge very succinctly.  I like the kWh usage number and I can easily mentally compare that to my 85kWh battery and compare my Wh/mi usage to the 300 Wh/mile standard.  Here in the hills of California, I never average as low as 300 Wh/mile.  Only on some very flat freeways can the average be maintained at that low level.

Curb Rash Preventer With Automatic Window Tilt in Reverse

Curb Rash Preventer With Automatic Window Tilt in Reverse

2. Tesla has finally found a solution to my curb rash! Now the rear view mirrors adjust downwards while backing up.  I have only tried using this feature once but now I imagine I can parallel park much nicer even without auto-pilot. Of course, I could have done that manually in the past, but I couldn’t imagine messing with my mirrors every time before and after parallel parking.  I’m really excited about this feature because for some reason I’ve never been a great parallel parker.  In my entire life I just have never lived anywhere where I parked parallel with any frequency.

After visiting so many superchargers, I’m really good at backing up into tight spaces though.

Dash Display on Left and Center

Dash Display on Left and Center

 

3. The center of the dash has grown and changed to accommodate an area for the autopilot in the middle of the speedometer.   For those without autopilot the area is a bit excessive.  The car will have indication lights such as when it is braking as in the picture, but typically this information does not change much and can be a bit annoying.  Owners with red cars have reported they cannot really see the red indicator lights as it blends too much with their car color on the display.

To make space for the larger center display, the battery level was moved to the left and the date, time and temperature removed from the standard dash set up.  You can see the time at the far upper right of the 17” screen, and the date through the calendar app.

To appease those of us who may want to have an easier glance at the time, they added a new clock widget.  The response to the clocks widget is that it is almost universally esthetically displeasing.  And with all of that space, why can’t the date and day of the week also be listed?

Upper Left of 17" Screen Includes Lock / Unlock Button

Upper Left of 17″ Screen Includes Lock / Unlock Button

4.  Tesla added a tiny lock and unlock button on the top row of the 17” screen.

I like this improvement because it took a while to fiddle around the 17” screen to unlock the doors for someone who was trying to get into the car.   They moved the outside temperature reading up here too along with a new button for bringing up the charge screen.

I think the temperature needs to go back to the dash permanently.  I am a bit obsessive about the outside temperature.  I adjust the inside temperature control a lot depending upon the outside temperature and whether or not it is sunny.  This fall has been so warm here in California.  Today is the first day of the year that even feels like fall not summer so I’ve been watching the temperature this year a bit obsessively.

The new charge button brings up the charge screen, which to me is a bit strange.  I am always fiddling a bit to find the unlock charge port button more than anything else on that screen. I’d prefer that this lightning bolt just unlocked the charge port.

Other Details

The release also includes a few other minor changes on the dash board that I will not mention such as a full screen control of the media player.  There are also some efficiency improvements but I have not driven the car much yet to notice any differences.  Newer cars also get a full four wheel tire pressure monitoring sensors that will report on each four tires.  My car’s vintage is unfortunately too old.  I don’t know if there are any bug fixes to the bug challenged trip planner.

All in all, I think 7.0 is an improvement even with a few trivial mistakes on the UI.

Battery Swap

Preface

For this article, my standard photo sharing uses on this website DO NOT APPLY.  These photos are under copyright by Tesla Owner and cannot be used elsewhere.  More details in the appendix.

Introduction

Recently many California Tesla owners and I were invited to participate in the battery swap. I could not resist trying it out.  I had a couple of upcoming plans in Southern California, and arranged a four day trip including a battery swap at the Harris Ranch Battery Swap Station in Coalinga, California off Interstate 5 (I-5).

Car Undergoing a Six Minute Battery Swap in Coalinga, CA

©Tesla Owner 2015 — Car Undergoing a Six Minute Battery Swap in Coalinga, CA

This blog post will describe in detail the logistics of the swap.  Then I provide some analysis of the viability of battery swap stations.

Scheduling a Swap

To schedule a swap, you call a Tesla employee who lives in Coalinga.  The swaps are available seven days a week from around 9am to 5pm.  He fits you into an available time slot.  When I called, the swap station was already quite booked for the next couple of weeks.  I managed to schedule a trip by driving down on a Friday and returning on a Monday.  No slots were available on the weekend and only two slots were available on that Monday.  The station appears to be quite busy for the foreseeable future.

Currently, the majority of people using the swap are folks driving on business.  They are probably traveling salesmen who need their car or our visiting a variety of locations.  Because for most business trips, traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles areas is better served by airplanes.

Although you need to make an appointment, the appointment time is not fixed in stone.  If you arrive one hour late, it is “no big deal”.  He does prefer you call in transit to let you know an approximate time of arrival.  Part of this courtesy call is that there are several people working underground to get the battery off and on.  If he knows when you are to arrive, they can be in position to make the swap faster.

Your travel plans need to be a true round trip.  Your need to return to the same location to pick up your battery.

The cost of the swap is $80 for both swaps.  The price is comparable to two tanks of gas for a large vehicle.  You will get the same type of battery that you already have on your car:  60, 70 or 85 kWh.  The battery I got during the swap was not a new battery but actually the same B vintage.  The battery will be fully range charged upon your arrival.

The Swap Itself

Valet Station at Tesla Battery Swap

©Tesla Owner 2015 — Valet Station at Tesla Battery Swap

The swap itself is very simple.  You arrive at the south end of the station, where a Tesla employee greets you.  He intentionally take the fob and hands it back to you at the end, because one customer accidentally drove off without his fob.  The valet then drives your car to the north end and into the swap station.  They close all the doors at this time.

There is a funky waiting room to the side with a couple of chairs and a LCD screen with four security camera like scenes.  You can’t see much of anything useful in this room.  They have a refrigerator with chilled plastic bottled water, but I’d prefer to see a chilled water dispenser to refill my reusable stainless steel and BPA free water bottles.

The better view is by watching it through the back door.  The door is a mixture of a clear material and a metal.  You can see the process much better by peering through the slats.  If they did not want you to watch this process, they could have easily installed a solid door.

All three of these spots are visible in the picture to the right.   The black valet station is in the foreground, the funky white waiting room immediately behind it, and the battery swap station with its see through slats.

Not a Completely Automatic Process

©Tesla Owner 2015 — Requires Humans

The car is driven on a floor that is removable.  Workers underneath unscrew the existing battery.  A mechanical machine moves the old battery out of the way and brings a new battery into position, and then it is screwed on by the workers.

Even by peering through the back door of the station, it is quite difficult to see much of anything going on inside as it is all taking place under the car.  I did see a few hands, so I know the process is not completely automated.

While this process is occurs, the valet cleans your windshield and front lights.

Swap Time

The swap itself took 6 minutes the first time, and 8 minutes the second time for an average of 7 minutes.  On the demonstration video back in 2013, the car was swapped in 1 1/2 minutes.   The second time they had a minor issue putting in my battery.  They seemed to need to pull it back and readjust it.  The 7 minute average time was from when I handed the valet the fob to when the car exited the swap station.

Using Someone Else’s Battery

Batteries wear down with more use.  So on this trip for 971 miles, my battery stayed in Coalinga.  An weak analogy exists between driving a rental car and driving on a swapped battery.  But other than range charging every time and driving a lot of miles it is hard to abuse a battery.  An extreme situation would be to arrange a battery swap and then drive the car around the country for 10,000 miles and then return a month or so later to get your own battery.

Trip Energy Report

The following information is primarily just amusing.  I drove from home, swapped the battery in Coalinga and did not charge till I reached the Mojave supercharger.  When you do a swap, the software does not know the battery has changed and reports the following information.

104kWh

Trip Energy Shows 104.4 kWh Since Last Charge

I had used 104.4kWh to get from home to the Mojave supercharger!  I would love to have a battery with more than 100kWh.

Swap Station Interest Level

At the 2015 Shareholder’s Meeting, Elon stated that there is not that much interest in battery swapping.

“We have, basically, the LA-to-San Francisco pack swap capability in place, and I believe all Model S owners in the California area have been invited at this point to try it out. And what we’re seeing is a very low take rate for the pack swap station. So we did an initial round of invitations, where we did basically, like, 200 invitations, and I think there were a total of four or five people that wanted to do that, and they all did it just once. So, like, okay, clearly it’s not very popular. And then we said, okay, let’s expand that invitation to all customers, but I would expect that all customers behave roughly like that initial sample group.”

This statement from Elon is a bit misleading.  First of all not that many people drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles routinely.  People that can afford a Model S are more likely to fly.  So if they only got a 2% result from their invitation, that would not be surprising given the demographics.  Secondly for those of us who are fond of driving, we are not that likely to do this drive regularly.  I have driven on I-5 now twice this year, and I know I will be doing it again next February but have no plans in between those two dates.  Leisurely drivers may also opt to drive on highway 101, which is more scenic.  So it does not surprise me at all that the swappers only swapped once.  If it is true that the Beta testers only swapped once but drive regularly up and down I-5, that fact would be much more convincing.  But the swap station appointment calendar is currently quite busy.

“It’s just, people don’t care about pack swap. The Superchargers are fast enough that if you’re driving from LA to San Francisco, and you start a trip at 9 AM, by the time you get to, say, noon, you want to stop, and you want to stretch your legs, hit the restroom, grab a bite to eat, grab a coffee, and be on your way, and by that time, the car is charged and ready to go, and it’s free. So, it’s like, why would you do the pack swap? It doesn’t make much sense.”

In general, I agree with this part of Elon’s statement.  But I can drive from San Francisco to LA on two range charges.  I can range charge at home, reach Coalinga, swap and make it to my destination in the north half of Los Angeles.  If I need to stop and do a range charge, my charging time is much closer to an hour.  I may want to grab a very fast bite and be out of there in fifteen minutes.  I don’t always want to eat or stretch my legs exactly the time I arrive at a supercharger, so more flexibility is nice.

I also tend to not drive on the obvious routes.  On this trip, I first went to the desert and drove from Coalinga towards Barstow, but I did need to stop in Mojave to charge for a few minutes before continuing.  According to EVtriplanner in hot conditions starting in Coalinga, the drive to Tejon Ranch, Mojave and Barstow superchargers would take 47.4, 63.7 and 87.1 kWh respectively. Ideally I would like to skip both Tejon Ranch and Mojave and make it all the way to Barstow.  I don’t really mind stopping and supercharging, but on very long drives it is really nice not to have to stop, or to shorten the charging time significantly.  I have previously driven directly to Mojave on a non-range charge but I drove a bit conservatively.  With a full range charge, I can drive worry free.

Returning back up north from Coalinga, if I do not have a range charge, I need to stop at the Gilroy supercharger.  I potentially may be able to make it home if I am very careful but I could definitely not stop by for an errand or two.  After using the swap I easily made it home about thirty minutes to an hour earlier because saving time charging.  I could have range charged for an hour in Coalinga, or I could have saved some time by charging both in Coalinga and in Gilroy.  But sometimes one simply does not want to negotiate getting on and off the freeway.  I felt my $80 was well spent for these two long driving days.

On the other hand if the swap station was not available, I would be content with supercharging for free.

Where Battery Swaps Make Sense

I think there are a few places where battery swaps make sense.  Here are the parameters:

  1. A long highway with nothing interesting to see, do or eat.
  2. The start point from home to the swap can be done on a range charge but challenging on a regular 90% charge.
  3. From the swap to the end point can be done on a range charge but challenging on a 90% charge.

So in California, I would envision the three following routes that could perhaps support a battery swap station:

  1. The existing Coalinga / Harris Ranch along I-5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
  2. Perhaps a station near Davis, CA serving skiers, boarders and other folks heading to Lake Tahoe or the Sierras for the weekend from the San Francisco area.   This location would be somewhere along I-80 before the split with 50 in order to serve both shores of the lake.
  3. Somewhere between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Swap Station Viability

The physical footprint of the swap station is larger than a supercharger station and has only one use.  The Coalinga swap station formerly had been a car wash.  There needs to be enough physical space to store enough batteries in order to have enough swaps.  This physical space has a more real cost than a supercharger in a standard parking spot in the United States.

I only interacted with the Tesla valet, and could not clearly see the other Tesla employees that were underground.  I know there were at least two and most likely three employees underground.  So to keep a swap station viable, there needs to be enough swaps per day to pay for a head count to run the swap station.

Appointments

The current scheme to use the swap requires appointments.  Although they are open 7 days a week, the 9am to 5pm schedule is a bit limiting.  When taking trips it is often difficult to plan the exact time frame when arriving at a destination.

I can easily envision the two additional routes mentioned above (Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas) being primarily used for weekend jaunts.  The timing for swaps would likely be Friday between 5 and 9 pm and Sunday between 4 and 8 pm. The current 9am to 5pm schedule would not really be very useful for true weekend get aways.

A true useful swap station would not be this restrictive.  Perhaps you are guaranteed a fast swap if you have an appointment, but if you do not, you may have to wait.  The Coalinga station will remain in operation through at least early 2016.

Conclusion

“We built the pack swap into the car because we weren’t sure if people would want to choose the pack swap or not. We thought people would prefer Supercharging, but we weren’t sure, so that’s why we built the pack swap capability in. And, you know, based on what we’re seeing here, it’s unlikely to be something that’s worth expanding in the future, unless something changes.”

I don’t think the battery swap stations need to be widespread.  When on a true leisurely vacation, one enjoys stopping and absorbing the local color.  But on routine drives, $80 is not a lot of money.  I remember many weekends driving up to go skiing, and saving those 30 minutes of charge time would have been great, and I could envision easily splitting the cost amongst everyone in the car instead of chipping in for gas money.

I can envision in the future if the economics work out well enough for Tesla, there will be say a dozen swap stations in the United States on heavily used corridors.  I do agree with Elon that there is not a large demand for swap stations in general because for most drives supercharger times are fast enough.

My final review is that I appreciated the swap station.  I don’t like I-5 and I just want to keep on driving.  The process worked smoothly but I did feel a bit restricted by the requirement of an appointment.  Unless the logistics of the swap station could financially support a non-appointment model, I don’t think swap stations will be very popular outside of a few locations.

Appendix

Rollup Doors with Visibility

©Tesla Owner 2015 — Rollup Doors with Visibility

When I arrived at the swap station, I asked if it was okay to take pictures.  I was informed that it was fine for personal use.  There is no signage restricting photos or any information to that effect in any of the correspondence on the swap.  I told the valet that I was a blogger, but that I do not make money on the blog.  So would that be a problem as this is a personal blog?  He did not clarify the statement but directed me to call Tesla media relations.

I wanted to give Tesla the fair opportunity to say no, so I called Tesla and asked for media relations.  They told me to send an email to a particular email address.  I described what I was going to do and introduced myself and asked permission to post photos of my battery swap.   I only received an automated reply.  One business day later but three actual days later, I again sent an email to Tesla saying I was going to publish the photos soon unless they had a problem with that and to please let me know.  Since I made my best effort to contact Tesla and have now waited over three business days, I decided it was okay to publish these photos but will not share them with other websites.

I am not particularly impressed with how Tesla handles these kinds of questions.  I should be able to get a response by phone or email within a few days.  And if they have any real concerns about people using these photos, they need to inform their own employees the exact policy.

Battery Swap Invite

I just got an unsolicited invite for the battery swap program.  I have a few thoughts but no plans to drive to Southern California in the next couple of months, so I may (or may not) be giving them a call depending upon my plans.  I would love to try out the battery swap station, so perhaps I should firm up my plans.

“We invite you to participate in the pilot of our expanded battery pack swap program for your Model S. 

The program, operating at a facility located across the street from the Tesla Superchargers at Harris Ranch, CA, is intended to refine the technology and assess demand. 

We would very much appreciate your feedback during or after any planned trips using battery swap to help us shape the program going forward. In the pilot phase, battery swap is available by appointment and will cost slightly less than a full tank of gasoline for a premium sedan. The pack-swapping process takes approximately three minutes and Tesla staff at the station will assist you with your swap.”

Road Trip Testing the New Trip Planner

Last week I went from my home in the San Francisco Bay Area to Ashland, Oregon and back in my Tesla with software version 6.2.4.153.  I do this trip twice a year as I really enjoy the plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — where 2/3 are not Shakespeare plays — along with the wonderful food and ambiance in the town itself.

On the way up, I drove a circuitous route through the Petaluma supercharger and experimented with the new trip planning feature, and on the way back I explicitly tested the feature.  The trip planner technically is still in Beta and was added to help us plan our trips and reduce range anxiety.  Unfortunately, the software still has quite a few problems that inadvertently caused me some minor range anxiety.

Tesla divides the software into three different features:  trip planner, range assurance, and navigation.  The trip planner helps you determine how much time to charge at each supercharger.  The range assurance software lets you know that you potentially may be running out of energy while driving.  The navigation software has been part of the software since the Model S began shipping.  To the end user, all three of these pieces of software have high degrees of interaction.  This review of the trip planner software inevitably discusses all the software in totality.

Informal Testing

On the way to Oregon, I stopped in at the newer Petaluma supercharger and decided to drive up through Calistoga and avoid some of the very boring Interstate 5 (I-5) driving.  Prior to the trip, I planned the journey in some detail using evtripplanner.com.  The total miles between the Petaluma supercharger and the Corning supercharger on I-5 is 165 miles, which should use up 52.6kWh on my 85 with 21” wheels in typical nice California weather.

In Petaluma when I selected the Corning supercharger, the navigation system really wanted me to go to the Vacaville supercharger first.  I could not overwrite the path as the software does not allow any waypoints on your drive.  Waypoints are intermediate points that you can select to choose between alternative routes.  The Tesla navigation system has a very strong preference for freeways.  By the time I got to Calistoga, the software finally gave up and routed me directly to the Corning supercharger showing I would have a 28% battery upon arrival.

Software Weakness #1  – Navigation System really needs waypoints to allow the user to select alternative routes.

I went for a very nice hike in Robert Lewis Stevenson State Park which is at the summit of a small mountain range.  When I got back, the software was completely confused and reported that it would only have 5% of battery when I got to Corning and that I needed to drive slowly.

Tesla Range Assurance Warning

Tesla Range Assurance Warning

Since I was paying close attention to this new software and have driven cross country in the Tesla, I was not alarmed and realized my problem was likely that the car could not connect to the internet. After driving downhill about 10 miles, the 3G connection finally kicked in and the number shot back up to about 28% battery remaining.

Software Weakness #2  – The trip planner needs to store more information so that in period without internet access, the software does not report incorrect data.

The next day I headed towards Ashland after charging that morning at the Mt. Shasta supercharger.  I was only going to drive to Ashland and stay there and return to the same supercharger.  Because I have done this route a few times in the Tesla, I did not pre-plan my trip to and from the Shasta supercharger beforehand.  I charged the car at Mt. Shasta to what I suspected was “full enough” and not a range charge; I unfortunately did not note the exact amount of charge.

The driving distance between Mt. Shasta and Ashland is only 75 miles and there are a few slower chargers in town.  But I would have dearly loved to have a round trip feature on the trip planner, so I would have known how much I needed to charge in Mt. Shasta.  The elevation change is 1,653 feet so using the number of miles is not sufficient to estimate charging needs.  I did not remember how much I had charged on previous trips.

Software Weakness #3  – The Trip Planner needs a roundtrip feature.  

Ashland

Blink Charger With Almost Unreadable Screen

Blink Charger With Almost Unreadable Screen

Ashland has a few chargers in town, so I decided to stop and try to top off the Tesla at one of  them.  Even if the Tesla software is far from perfect, I do not particularly enjoy dealing with external charging stations.  The stations in Ashland are no exception.  I have charged there once before.  But Ashland is very strict with their parking rules;  I have gotten a ticket in the past for staying about 15 minutes past my four hour allowed time in the same parking lot.

I was a little nervous with the ubiquitous signs stating “Head In Parking Only” when the cord would not reach while parking head in.  The second problem was that I simply could not read the cracked and dirty screen in the direct sunlight.   The third problem was that when I pulled out my Blink charging card, I got the error “Access Denied”.  I incorrectly figured I had enough juice and gave up.

Pavement Where Tesla Suspension Needs to be Raised

Pavement Where Tesla Suspension Needs to be Raised

The hotel I like to stay in Ashland has a terrible entrance to their parking lot.  Under the small outbuilding is a eight car parking garage with a short but steep entrance.  On the pavement are scratch marks from the many cars that scrape the pavement.

I have earlier raised the car in this exact same location, but I figured the car would automatically raise itself.  Unfortunately, the Tesla seemed to have a bad memory and I scraped the car a tiny bit.  I manually raised the suspension, and the screen said “Auto-raising location” after the fact.  As a test, I drove away, lowered the suspension, and re-entered the parking lot but the car did not want to raise itself automatically.

Software Weakness #4  – The auto-raising location detection  or activation does not seem to always take affect where needed.

Tesla Auto Raising Feature Report on the Screen But Not in Reality

Tesla Auto Raising Feature Report on the Screen But Not in Reality

The morning when I was leaving Ashland, I selected the Mt. Shasta supercharger on the map, I realized I did not have enough energy to get to Mt. Shasta and the car wanted to go to the next supercharger to the North.  I decided to top off at the Blink charger.  I backed in and called Blink, who said that particular card was not activated.  I must have used the iphone app the other time I used their system.  The nice feature about superchargers is that they are significantly less complicated.  There are several charging networks with various maps, cards, smartphone apps, cable lengths, charging rates and connector types.  With infrequent use of general charging, these relatively easy differences can feel complicated.  The superchargers are always free and always have the same cable.

The Real “Test”

List of Upcoming Superchargers and Time Needed at Each Stop

List of Upcoming Superchargers and Time Needed at Each Stop

After an unexpected lovely morning charging in Ashland enjoying a late breakfast, I decided to embark on the real test of the Tesla trip planner.  I was going to drive straight home and follow the instructions given by the Trip Planner.  I was not going to take any significant detours other than a quick stop or two right off the freeway where needed.  I decided to do a formal “test” of this new feature.

I was going to visit as many superchargers as needed and charge the exact amount of time listed.

For this journey, the total amount of supercharging would be exactly an hour at three different superchargers:  Mt. Shasta (15 minutes), Corning (25 minutes) and Vacaville (20 minutes).

While driving I watched to see if the numbers changed.  I kept close to the speed limit perhaps exceeding it by up to 5mph.  The test occurred on a Sunday afternoon where I-5 is actually reasonably busy and has a comfortable 70mph speed limit for most of the journey.  For late April the weather was a bit warm in the high 80s but not exceptionally hot for the central valley of California.

Supercharger Mt. Shasta

When I arrived at the Mt. Shasta supercharger I was the only Tesla there.

Charging Progress Screen

Charging Progress Screen

The software does a nice job reporting progress while charging.  It lists how many more minutes you need to charge and also the amount of energy you will have left at the next charging station.  The estimates also include a negative charge, which is a nice feature to monitor while waiting.

I quickly filled up as needed in the 15 minutes of time listed.  I was comfortable with how many miles I had in the battery.  When I am at home, I like to see the amount of energy in the battery listed as a percentage, but when traveling I like to see the distance in rated miles (not ideal), so I can quickly compare it to the amount I would need to travel.

After the 15 minutes were up, the car let me know it was ready to go both on the car’s screen and the Tesla Iphone app.

Driving to Corning

On the way to Corning, I noticed that the software seems to think in 5 minute intervals.  From time to time it seemed to estimate that it might take 20 minutes to charge at one of the superchargers, than it changed its mind to 25 minutes.  I’m not sure why Tesla decided to not make the number of minutes more granular as they are still estimates.

Corning Supercharger

At Corning there was another Tesla there, but I pulled into a charger that was not paired with theirs.  I went for a stroll, but I was not hungry enough to grab a bite to eat and was going to find something in Vacaville.

My charge took the 25 minutes as required, and the car told me “You have enough energy to continue on your trip”. I recorded on the Tesla app a charge of 140 miles.  Google maps indicates the driving distance is 113 miles.  EV trip planner also says there is a drop of 174 feet.  Although the buffer was not large, I was comfortable enough driving on.

Williams

A little after 5pm, the hunger pangs hit in and I decided to find some vegetarian fast food.  Just off the exit in Willows, CA is a Burger King, which sells a vegetarian burger.  After picking one up, the range assurance software became very unhappy.  I had not even added a mile to my trip, but it wanted me to go back to Corning.  I refused and checked my battery level and was comfortable I could get to Vacaville.  I continued on driving just under the speed limit at 68 or 69 mph and kept my kwH / mile at a reasonable level.  I was comfortable with the amount of energy in my battery.

I turned off the navigation as it continued to want me to make a U-turn.  I briefly became a bit anxious; I was finding the navigation system was giving me more range anxiety than I have had in the past; I did not actually have “range anxiety” but I was slightly disappointed that I unexpectedly need to pay more attention to my energy usage than expected.  In my 40,000 miles of driving the Tesla I have never experienced any true range anxiety.  I have experienced a few periods of time where I needed to drive conservatively.   These few cases were planned in that I knew I was pushing the limits of charge in my battery before I began driving.

I turned the software on again a few times to see what it decided to do.  Somewhere in the middle of the two supercharging stations, it told me to go find another place to charge!

Unexpected Mid Journey Warning too Far Away From  Any Chargers

Unexpected Mid Journey Warning too Far Away From Any Chargers

For entertainment purposes, I hit the show chargers option.  It wanted me to drive over the mountains and go to some wineries on the way to Calistoga. I was definitely not going to do that option, and turned off navigation and continued my conservative driving with the cruise control on.  When I asked the Tesla where to go at one point it wanted me to drive to the Roseville supercharger first and arrive there with zero charge!  The distance between the Corning supercharger and the Vacaville supercharger is 113 miles, whereas the distance between the Corning supercharger and the Roseville supercharger is 128 miles.

Navigator Re-routed Me to Roseville

Navigator Re-routed Me to Roseville

Software Weakness #5 – The software needs to remember in the cache that it had earlier told me I had enough energy to get to the next supercharger.  I was driving within the speed limits.  Just because I used up perhaps a wee bit more energy and would arrive with 20 miles left instead of 25, the software should not get completely confused.

Ironically just across the street from the Burger King is a Motel 6 with a Sun Country charger.  Also fifteen miles before Vacaville is a public charger in Winters, CA.  These two options along with a few other choices along I-5 and in Woodland would have been much better choices in a real charging emergency.  Charging stations are not ubiquitous along I-5 but do exist.

Software Weakness #6 – When suggesting emergency charging, the software should list all charging stations.  Currently it appears to list only Tesla HPWC and superchargers but not the more ubiquitous chargers by other companies. Even better yet, it should tell you to significantly slow down.  I could have easily driven 60mph.

As I was approaching Vacaville, I began to speed up a bit.  The software finally settled down and routed me to Vacaville with some remaining charge.

Vacaville Supercharger

The Vacaville supercharger was quite busy.  I pulled into a non-paired stall with 17 miles left.  Another person arrived just before me but selected a paired stall.  I have noticed that many Tesla owners simply drive up to any supercharger stall without even checking the stall designation.  Perhaps they are uninformed that their charge can be greatly reduced if they pick a paired stall with another recent arrival.

Backing up is a bit tricky in some of the stalls in Vacaville.  There room in front of the middle stalls is hampered by perpendicular parking in front.  By the time I backed in, the out of state drivers had already walked away from their charging stall.

Continuing my test, I charged until the the time the car told me I had enough energy to complete my journey home, which was exactly 20 minutes.  At this point every charger was full.  As I was simply going home and my test theoretically complete, I pulled out to give my stall to the newcomer.  But taking a second look while parked in front of the 8 Teslas charging, I saw the following statistics:

  1. Driving distance to home – 104 miles
  2. Rated range charge – 111 miles
  3. Expected charge upon arrival 5%

Software Weakness #7 – The warning indicator “You have enough energy to continue on this trip” is not carefully programmed.  The software told me I had enough energy to continue on the trip with a very small margin below 25 miles.  I am guessing that the timer stuck to the initial 20 minutes instead of charging time instead of accurately measuring the charge level upon completion. 

Instead of continuing, I saw another car had left and backed into and charged some more.  The charge rate was painfully slow as I was in a paired stall with I suspect someone pulling a lot of energy.  I probably left about 10 minutes later knowing I had to drive conservatively to make it home.  The Bay Area has a lot of gentle hills and I would need to use a little more energy for the last leg of my trip.

Tire Pressure Warning

About 30 miles away from home, I got the Tire Pressure Warning (TPWS) light come on.  I have not received this warning in over a year.  In the past I got a lot of false warnings and some very genuine warnings before a potential blow out.  I pulled over and looked at the tires and they did not look visibly low.  When I got back in the car the warning went away, only to reappear and disappear again 15 miles later after looking at the tires again.

The next day I took the car to my local garage and one tire was lower by about 10 psi and had a nail in it.   The TPWS worked well and saved my tire.  I’m not sure why the behavior flickered on and off.  The perpendicular angle of the nail resulted in a slow leak and the tire is now repaired.

Conclusions

Tesla is headed in the right direction by helping drivers plan their energy usage.  They correctly labeled this software as a Beta version.  Most of the problems I found were more software weaknesses / enhancements than explicit bugs.  Unfortunately in the current condition the software will do little to reduce range anxiety and in some cases may significantly increase range anxiety.

In the current software, Tesla is trying to appease two opposing needs at the same time:  range anxiety and optimal charging time.  Unfortunately, these two needs are actually inversely correlated.  If I want to have no range anxiety, I would fill up the battery as much as possible before continuing or at least add more of a cushion, but that would take up more time at the superchargers.  If I want to optimize my charging time, I need to watch the driving speed and monitor the energy usage.  If I always keep the battery as low as possible, I could easily have some range anxiety or a trip where I need to monitor energy usage.

Software Weakness #8 – The software should have an option for selecting between truly optimal supercharging times or range anxiety cushions.  Clearly the software is aiming that you arrive at the next supercharger with 25 miles left.  I find this a reasonable cushion for point to point conservative driving.  Perhaps the software should have an option:  range or time.  The time would be in the current configuration.  I doubt anyone would want to plan with less than a 25 mile buffer.  The range option would perhaps increase this buffer by 25 miles to 50 miles.

The current software is useful for existing Model S owners, but in its current state it will not address the concerns of the non-tech savvy person who may have range anxiety.   I have forwarded this review to Tesla management, and I am confident that the software will improve over time.

For Model S drivers when using this software, I would point out the following five facts before embarking on a road trip:

  1. The amount of time to charge at each supercharger is relatively aggressive leaving you only 25 miles extra driving distance at the speed limit.
  2. You may get some scary warnings if you veer off the software’s designated path.
  3. The Tesla software does not include any non-Tesla chargers – either commercial stations or free if you are close to running out of juice.  Please consult other websites or smartphone apps if you are running out of energy.
  4. The software may notify that your battery is full enough to leave the supercharger but may actually need more time.  Double check the charge before unplugging.
  5. The software may give you false warnings when out of cell signal range.

Range Anxiety

Elon Musk had a press conference today to discuss upcoming firmware improvements in version 6.2 and beyond.

Firmware 6.2:

  1. New Range Assurance Application that is always running in the background.  The car is always monitoring where it is in relationships to the superchargers and warns you if you may run out of electricity.  This monitoring takes into account current weather conditions and terrain.  You have to “opt-out” twice before running out of range.
  2. Built in trip planner that considers best route for your trip along with best charging opportunities.  The trip planner also figures out how long you need to charge at the location and lets you know on your smartphone that it is time to go.
  3. The supercharger status is also on a network.  The car is constantly communicating with this network.
  4. Automatic safety braking
  5. Side to side collision and blind spot warning
  6. Improvements in radio reception
  7. Valet mode similar to the Roadster
  8. Nuanced accelerator and brake improvements

Firmware 7

  1. New user interface
  2. Auto steering features

Other updates:

Model X is coming out this summer, and the first real auto-drive features will be available in six months.  Over the next twelve months all of Europe and the US (except for Northern Alaska) will be covered with superchargers. In 2015, Tesla will be deploying more superchargers in the world than the sum of all superchargers to date.

These new features are quite nice, and will be very helpful for those less technologically savvy.  I have to admit I have never had any range anxiety while traveling.  I am looking forward to having the whole continental US completely covered with superchargers.  I hope that means I can take a trip through the lonely deserts of southern Nevada and Arizona without depending upon charging at a campground.  For a true dream roadtrip, I would like a battery pack and a comfortable car that is still fun to drive that had a useful real world range of about 400 miles requiring just one charge per day.

Charging App Improvements

Recently Chargepoint began a campaign to sell a home charger.  Along with the charger comes a smartphone application that has a few nice features that are not found in the Tesla app.

The system maintains a database with all of the charging data.

Every time a driver plugs their car in at home or away from home at a Chargepoint brand charger, the system collects the information about each charge. In the past I went through great pains to determine how much I charged my car in a given year, and how much solar power I actually produced.  I never installed a meter to determine these amounts with a high level of accuracy.

I do love the idea that an accumulative data set would be available through a web portal just for the car.  If Tesla implemented a database with charging data it could include both charging amounts at home, at superchargers, and any other 3rd party location.

The app warns you when your car is at home but not plugged in.

Although this feature is not critical, on at least one occasion probably every Tesla owner has inadvertently forgotten to plug in their car when arriving at home.  Perhaps the driver did not plug in the car because the battery level was sufficient or simply became they were distracted.  Regardless a simple notification would be nice.

A link to the Nest Thermostat.

I chose not to buy the Nest Thermostat system as I do not think it will not save me money heating my home;  I have radiant heating through the floors and each room is carefully programmed.  Today the only value of linking these two devices is that the Nest system can warn the Chargepoint system in case of an emergency.

Although I am an engineer, at times I do wonder at times how over automated our society is and how ridiculously dependent we can be on technology.   For example without GPS, I suspect some people would be quite lost.  However a incremental improvements to the smart phone apps are generally appreciated.