Range anxiety: an EV road trip around Europe
Image credit: Len Williams
Shortly before the global pandemic struck, our reporter travelled around north-west Europe in a Tesla.
We were in a rainswept car park in Luxembourg City and we were worried. “It says we have enough battery to take us 30 miles,” said George. The next Tesla supercharger was only 12 miles away. “Technically we have more than enough power to get us there.”
“But what if we miss the turning like we did outside Reims?” I asked. That cost us an extra 28 miles of battery, driving to the next junction before turning around and coming back to the charger we’d missed. The screen was also flashing a warning: charge up now, because battery power drops faster when it’s cold.
This was day two of a four-day road trip in a Tesla Model S that I was taking with an old friend. The route we’d planned would take us through five countries over a long weekend in late February, the idea being to see what the infrastructure is like for electric vehicles (EVs) in as many places as possible. After picking the car up in London and crossing the Channel on a DFDS ferry, we drove through France, Luxembourg, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and then back to the UK via Calais.
Demand for EVs is soaring. Before the coronavirus outbreak, industry analysts had predicted that 5.5 per cent of cars sold in the UK in 2020 would be EVs, up from 3.4 per cent in 2019 – suggesting the future is bright for this class of vehicles.
However, EVs are still dogged by their biggest criticism: that they cannot compete with the internal combustion engine for ‘serious’ driving. Yes, the argument goes, they’re fine for short urban commutes, but if you want to do longer trips, they just don’t cut the mustard. I wanted to find out if the sceptics were right.
Back in rainy Luxembourg City, we pulled out of the car park, following the Tesla’s GPS to the closest supercharger within range (the GPS displays all chargers it reckons you can reach). We were soon out of the tiny capital and directed to a business park in the countryside – we found the supercharger with 18 miles to spare. Relieved, we left the car to charge and found something to eat in the only place that was open, which was, oddly enough, an organic supermarket.
For many people, America’s Route 66 is the road trip of dreams. Myself, I prefer a European jaunt. In four days, we travelled through six countries with distinct landscapes, cultures and languages.
In France we visited Reims, with its awe-inspiring cathedral, and dined on baked camembert. In Germany we stayed in the lovely town of Boppard on the Rhine, ate schnitzel and spent the night in the art deco Bellevue Rheinhotel, which offers free EV charging to guests. Our last night was spent in Antwerp, sampling several Belgian beers and wandering its pretty streets. We also stopped for a coffee and a charge near the Dutch city of Maastricht, as well as passing through Luxembourg.
Was it all possible in an electric vehicle? In short, yes. Apart from the mildly worrying moment in Luxembourg, we didn’t have any issues travelling over 700 miles in the Tesla, and most days saw us driving for four or five hours.
There is more than enough infrastructure in place to support this kind of journey – with a bit of planning, there’s no reason anyone couldn’t go on an EV adventure. Plus, for Tesla drivers (we were members of that elite club for four days), charging is free when you use the company’s network of ‘superchargers’, which fill batteries to 80 per cent in just 45 minutes. We didn’t spend a penny on fuel over hundreds of miles.
Overall, it is perfectly possible to do a European road trip in an EV. But, it was different from a regular long-distance drive – and might not be to everyone’s taste.
The Model S is one of Tesla’s most popular cars. The sporty five-door hatchback is designed as a cruiser and feels very much at home covering long distances on motorways; Tesla say that in optimal conditions a full charge will take you 379 miles.
Like all EVs, the electric motor delivers maximum torque from zero revs upwards. You can also set it to ‘Ludicrous Mode’, which lets you go 0-60mph in 2.4 seconds. We tested it pulling away from a toll booth on one of France’s autoroutes. Our heads were pinned to the back of our seats and we both went “woooow” like schoolboys. It also goes fast – on Germany’s speed-limit-free autobahn we reached 126mph without really feeling it. And all of this in near silence – EVs are free of the grind and roar of regular motors.
The fact that the battery is flat on the floor means the car’s interior feels cavernous – three large adults could comfortably sit on the back row. The boot is huge and Teslas come with a ‘frunk’ (front trunk) – since there’s no engine taking up this space, you can store extra luggage there.
Inside it is suitably luxurious – after all, the Model S starts at £81,000 – all leather and wood. It’s also very high-tech. The Tesla comes with a 17-inch touchscreen GPS and multimedia system on the dashboard. Besides giving directions, it features all the music and video-streaming services a road tripper could want in terms of entertainment to help pass hours on the road. It even has a Mario Kart-style video game, where you use the car’s real steering wheel to drive an animated car (while stationary, of course!).
The car also comes with 360-degree visibility thanks to cameras dotted around its exterior. That’s obviously helpful for parking but is also handy when driving through narrow city streets.
Another handy feature is that you can set the car to autopilot on motorways. Take your foot off the accelerator and it sticks to the speed limit and lanes while keeping a safe distance from the car in front. You have to keep your hands on the wheel and stay focused on the road, but the autopilot leaves you feeling less drained than you typically would after a long drive.
And it really is a pleasure to drive. The car has great traction and feels very solid. During our trip in February we had atrocious weather, with high winds and heavy rain throughout, but we really didn’t feel it inside our high-tech cocoon.
It’s not perfect, of course. The friend I shared the driving with felt it lacked personality, which is perhaps inevitable when there are no gears to shift. Like many other reviewers have noted, it’s worth taking the stated range with a big grain of salt. While we weren’t driving in anywhere near optimal conditions, the battery’s power dropped a lot faster than we’d expected.
It may have been a settings problem, but the built-in GPS left us frustrated on several occasions too – warnings about when to turn off a road would come just as you were passing the exit. When driving in towns this was merely inconvenient. But on motorways, where a missed turn costs 20-odd miles of precious battery range, it’s exasperating.
One of the biggest differences between petrol and electric cars is, of course, the issue of charging the battery. If you use an electric vehicle just for your commute to and from work, you can charge it up in your garage overnight. On a longer road trip, however, you’re going to need to charge more frequently and during our trip we typically charged up at least twice a day.
The obvious charging stations of choice for Tesla drivers are the company’s network of ‘superchargers’, distributed throughout the countries we visited – at motorway service stations, outside suburban hotels and in business parks. You simply plug the car in and 45 minutes later the battery will be charged to 80 per cent – more than enough to get to the next supercharger or destination.
Since superchargers are free for Tesla drivers, the 45-minute wait seems like a reasonable trade-off. We weren’t in any particular rush and it made for a nice break to go and have a coffee or a bite to eat. That said, it is a bit of a shame that they are often in fairly obscure locations – and with screaming kids on a long trip, all that extra time waiting while the car charges could be a drag.
Battery charge also became a real focal point of the trip. We were continually monitoring how much energy we had left and how far we were from the next supercharger. No doubt if you owned an EV and got to know it you could probably judge this fine. For us, this eliminated some of the spontaneity you might hope to experience from a road trip. We never felt comfortable taking an unexpected detour and it meant we stuck to motorways rather than branching out to more scenic country roads.
Nevertheless, with a bit of planning, charging really doesn’t need to be an obstacle. In most cities there are stations available (including those run by companies other than Tesla). You simply need to download charging apps where you can sign up to different networks and pay. Tesla has also invested in creating a network of ‘destination chargers’ – their website lists hotels which offer charging for guests.
In the end, our experience shows that road-tripping in an EV is completely doable. Yes, there were a few niggles, and it is still not quite as easy as doing the same journey in a car running on petrol or diesel. Nevertheless, it is not far off, and you get plenty of benefits besides. Fuel is cheaper (or free), Tesla drivers at least get plenty of kudos from passers-by, and you get to travel without the guilt of adding unnecessary carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
For me at least, road tripping in an EV is an easy choice.
Doris Gawel is the fourth generation in her family to manage the Bellevue Rheinhotel, a charming four-star establishment in the German riverside town of Boppard. The hotel features art-deco design, which creates an old-world feel, and its spacious dining room looks out over the Rhine and wooded hills opposite.
Although it was founded in 1887, Gawel ensures the hotel keeps up with the times – the building is almost entirely powered by an array of solar panels hidden away on the roof.
What makes the Rheinhotel especially attractive to EV drivers is that it offers free charging for guests. In 2017, Tesla installed two destination chargers in the car park, in addition to an existing charger that Gawel had already installed. “Many Tesla drivers come to the hotel because they can charge here,” she explains.
Destination chargers take four to five hours to fill up a Tesla battery, which means you can set off at 100 per cent in the morning. After a good night’s sleep at the Bellevue, your batteries really are recharged.
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