There’s a photograph which has been doing the rounds on the Internet for the past two days, popping up in various social media streams and in some cases, even being used by some Chevrolet Volt owners to mock fully-electric cars. Taken on December 26, it shows a line of Tesla Model S electric sedans queuing politely for a chance to charge at the Tejon Ranch Supercharger site just over 80 miles north of Los Angeles along Interstate 5.
Reports on the Tesla Motors Club forum accompanying the photograph talk about fifteen or more cars at a time waiting to for a slot at one of the six Supercharger stalls available at the location Those arriving at the busiest point of the day reported a wait of more than 1 hour and 45 minutes before even plugging their car in.
It’s a photograph which may strike fear into the heart of even the most hardened electric car fans — and elicit some serious schadenfreude from those who view plug-in cars as little more than a plaything for wealthy liberals who happily take taxpayer money to buy a super-expensive electric car. And while the story has been generally ignored by the mainstream media thus far, it’s one which we’re sure electric car skeptics and Fox News anchors like Neil Cavuto (to name just one) will undoubtedly get super-excited about. In fact, we can already imagine some of the salacious headlines.
But while we’re sure some will be tempted to report the sensationalist angle of this particular story, it’s worth remembering that in this instance, the day, the location, some less than ideal weather and terrible wildfires conspired to make the Tejon Ranch Queue of Christmas 2015 the perfect storm of EV charging nightmares.
Here’s where everything went wrong — and how we think electric car owners can react in the future to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
A busy route, on a super-busy day
Ask any Californian what I-5 is like, and they’ll tell you it’s a generally busy road, especially between Los Angeles and San Francisco. A popular commuter route between the two major cities, I-5 always gets busy around the holiday season as people from both Silicon Valley and LA escape to visit friends and family.
According to the AAA, the busiest days in the U.S. for travel revolve around our biggest holidays: Thanksgiving, July 4th, Memorial Day Weekend and Labor Day Weekend are all high-traffic days. So too are the days leading up and away from Christmas and New Year.
Put these factors together, and you’re left with a higher-than-usual demand for any Tesla Supercharger along the I-5 corridor — or in fact, along any major route served by Tesla Superchargers between major cities where Tesla has a healthy customer base.
Poor weather, uphill climb, heavier cars
In addition to the larger number of Tesla Model S cars making trips due to the season, the weather on December 26 wasn’t ideal for long-distance electric car trips. According to Weather Underground, the Tejon Ranch was a good nine degrees Fahrenheit colder than the seasonal average for the area. While it wasn’t cold enough for snow and there wasn’t’ any rain at the Tejon Ranch Supercharger site, some who drove that day reported a strong northerly headwind. Weather Underground reports that this was gusting at times to speeds of 17 mph. Nearby weather stations did report varying precipitation, with snow recorded at some locations near the Tejon Pass summit.
Which brings us nicely to the next point. With a strong headwind for those heading north, the almost relentless climb from downtown Los Angeles (285 feet) to the top of the Tejon Pass (4,133 feet) would have dramatically reduced the range of the otherwise long-legged Tesla Model S cars travelling along I-5. If we assume that not all those driving were used to longer-distance trips or less-than-perfect weather, we can assume that some would have been caught unawares by the range-zapping capabilities of driving uphill in a headwind. Add in a heavier than normal car (due to all those extra presents and luggage from a Christmas away from home) and it’s easy to see how range was impacted.
Result? More people were finding they needed to stop at Tejon Ranch for a Supercharge, even with the accurate range-coaching and prediction software built into every Model S.
(Need more proof? Read Staff Car Report: Nissan LEAF Vs Mountain and our more recent winter road trip on the same route to see just what kind of impact weather and terrain can have on an electric car range.)
Wildfires, road closures
As it has most of this year, the state of California — particularly Southern California — has suffered some severe wildfire breakouts in recent days. Over the Christmas period, wildfires in Ventura County have destroyed 1,200 acres of land and caused multiple road closures, including portions of the Pacific Coast Highway and U.S. Route 101.
This meant for some Tesla owners that their usual routes home were blocked, forcing them to stay on I-5 and head further north before heading towards the coast. And while the detour wouldn’t have cost them any extra money due to the fact that Tesla offers Supercharging free of charge to every customer, it did increase demand on the Tejon Ranch Supercharger, as those heading to cities like Santa Maria or Santa Barbara would have been forced to make a wide detour via the Tejon Ranch Supercharger to ensure they had enough range to make it home.
Already popular site
The final piece in the great Tesla Supercharger Queue of 2015 was the unfortunate fact that the Tejon Ranch Supercharger, even on a regular weekday, is a very popular Supercharger site. Located just past the Tejon Pass, it’s a logical place to refuel before heading north towards Harris Ranch. And while Tesla is currently building a new Supercharger station near Button Williow, just outside Bakersfield some 40 miles further north, it hasn’t opened yet.
Regulars who use the I-5 corridor tell us that they regularly plan on avoiding Tejon Ranch if they can, travelling the 190 miles from Burbank to Harris Ranch Superchargers on one charge. But we’re guessing not everyone who left on Saturday morning to head north did so with a full battery pack. Moreover, not everyone who made the trip would have done so in a Tesla Model S with the 85 kWh battery pack needed to make that segment of the trip easy on a single charge.
We understand that Tesla is already looking into expanding the Tejon Ranch site due to its popularity, but it’s also worth noting that like any charging network, it’s impossible for Tesla or any other provider to cover every eventuality in infrastructure deployment. At some point, if electric cars continue to rise in popularity, the charging network will start to feel the strain — and popular routes will feel that strain before less popular ones.
We’re also told by drivers who were there that Tesla did send employees to the site to help manage the Supercharger queues and hand out snacks and water to those waiting. Last time we checked, that didn’t happen when queues break out for gas stations or indeed regular non-Tesla charging stations.
Lessons to learn
With the nightmarish queues of Saturday hopefully now a distant memory for most, there are at least some lessons that can be learned to ensure that in the future, less people are left waiting for hours for a simple recharge.
It doesn’t matter if you’re driving a humble Nissan LEAF or a top-spec Tesla Model S, it’s always worth doing some planning ahead of any long-distance trip. Having an always-on Internet connection in your car, as well as plenty of ways to check the route is one thing — but it’s no substitute for a good backup plan.
As a rule of thumb, when weather is bad or traffic is heavier than usual, it’s always worth mentally blocking off some of your car’s range before departing on a long distance trip. Treat it just like an emergency cash buffer in your checking account: try to keep it at a healthy level at all times so you can dip into it in the event of an unexpected emergency.
Where possible too, plan a backup. In the case of those Tesla Model S owners stuck at Tejon, a quick check on PlugShare tells us that there’s a place in nearby Lebec which offers a NEMA 14-50 charging outlet for $25 per hour. While it’s no Supercharger, anyone with a mobile charging adaptor for their Model S would have been able to add 60 miles of range in the time it took them to queue for a spot at Tejon. Sure, it would have been a pricy cost, but could have been enough to help at least some Model S owners avoid the queue altogether.
Moreover, try to avoid times of the day when you know demand will be high. If you’ve got some control over when you travel for example, avoid the busiest times of day to make your trip. Even if you have to get up earlier than normal to leave before the rush begins, you’ll thank yourself for it.
Avoid tight schedules
Whenever you’re travelling long-distance, be it in an electric car, a plug-in hybrid, a hydrogen fuel cell car or an old-fashioned gasoline car, trying to keep to a tight schedule only adds unhelpful stress to your travel.
For each hour you plan to spend on the road, add 10 minutes for travel in non-busy periods, and 20 minutes for busy periods like Christmas or New Year. If you’re in an electric car, plan an additional 10 minutes for each charging stop if you know the charging stations won’t be in demand. Add thirty for every stop if you know there’s going to be a queue, or even more when you know demand will be at Tejon Ranch levels.
By building in that extra time and avoiding the tight schedule, you’ll not only enjoy your trip more but also be able to drive more efficiently. That in turn should reward you with better fuel economy and less time spent charging or filling up.
This last one is super-important. If you know you’re going to be able to make it to your destination without charging, then don’t. It’s okay to drop by and grab a few minutes of charge if you feel you really need it — but save the charging stations for those who really do need it to complete their travel.
It doesn’t matter what type of car you drive: using public charging because it’s free or less expensive than using your home charging station isn’t okay. You not only prevent others from making the trip but you’re also taking advantage of the infrastructure. And one day, you’ll likely find how frustrating that can be.
While we’re discussing sharing, it’s worth trying to stay close to your car if demand is high. If you know you’re not in a hurry, let someone else use the rapid charging station while your car charges on a lower-powered station. Or move your car when you know you’ve got enough charge to make it to your destination.
Do you agree?
Was Saturday’s massive Tesla Model S queue a freak occurrence? Or is this the new normal for electric car travel on longer-distance routes?
What’s more, who do you think is responsible, and how should it be solved?
Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.
In preparing for this article, we reached out to Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] for an official response. At the time of publication, we have yet to hear from Tesla on the matter, although we will print any statements given as and when they arrive.
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