Imagine this for a prize fight. In one corner, billionaire Elon Musk, the man who runs the company that builds the Tesla Model S. In the other corner, 62-year-old Kentucky racehorse breeder John Glenney. In June, Musk unknowingly throws down the gauntlet: He will take his kids across the country in a Tesla sedan, recharging it only at the company’s Supercharger stations. He will bring his kids along, too, retracing a trip he took in his college days. Glenney is unbowed. He sees the trip as a modern-day version of cracking the sound barrier or climbing Everest. “I’d love to do that. I want to be first,” he says. Musk will bring his kids? Fine, Glenney will bring his daughter Jill — she’s 26 and can help with the driving. Jill lives in Hoboken, N.J. so Glenney starts out east from Kentucky to pick her up and establish a start point. There are only two problems. First, the weather in the middle of the country is absolutely terrible, bad for any vehicle and it’s uncertain how it will affect the Tesla. Second, the Supercharger network isn’t yet complete; there are critical holes that haven’t been filled. The Glenneys leave on Monday January 20 anyway.
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One of the major criticisms leveled against EVs is that they won’t go mainstream until batteries improve enough to overcome “range anxiety,” the fear of running out of juice and getting stranded in the middle of nowhere. The Tesla Superchargers are designed to alleviate that fear by offering fast recharging along major highways. Tesla has plans to build hundreds of them by the end of next year, but at the moment there are only 73. When the Glenneys set out, there are fewer than 70.
This will create a problem almost from the get go. A fully charged Model S exiting Newark, Del. today can stop in Hagerstown, Md. for some additional electrons before journeying west across Pennsylvania. “On my way up to pick Jill up, I swung by there to see how close to completion it was,” John said. He didn’t like the answer: “I don’t really want to wait a week,” he recalls thinking.
The problem is that the distance between Newark and the charger in Somerset. Pa. is 239 miles if you stick to the Interstate and go via Baltimore. Given ideal conditions, a Tesla can make that, given it’s rated for 265 miles. But any change in altitude, nasty headwinds and extensive use of the heater will all take a toll. And it’s cold out there. Swinging by Harrisburg cuts 20 miles off the journey and still keeps the car on main roads. When the Glenneys set out from Newark, the range meter read 258 miles. Upon arriving in Somerset, it read 11.
“Along the way, I’m thinking, ‘If we can make it to this next one, it’s going to be real doable,” Glenney says of the entire trip. “I used all the tricks I knew to keep as many miles in reserve as I could.” Typically that includes being careful with braking, making sure to maximize the regenerative effects that recapture a bit of charge when the car slows. It also means not speeding as air resistance increases significantly at higher speeds and cuts into range. Glenney reported on the Tesla forums that he was typically driving in the 50s, but that traffic was light so they weren’t holding anyone else up. ”We were on pins and needles whether things were going to come together or fall apart,” he recalled. But that 11 was like two “#1″ signs pointing skyward. “I knew then, we were going to make it.”
Not that it was easy. Even before heading out with Jill, John had encountered a problem. He hit something on the road the morning they planned on leaving, dinging the rim on one of the wheels. It was 7 a.m. when he called Tesla service to see what they could do about a replacement. Within 2 hours, a new wheel was on the Glenney’s Model S. That wouldn’t be the last time John would call Tesla. After the harrowing leg to Somerset, the Glenney’s continued through to Ohio. The weather was going from bad to worse and a good amount of snow came down. By the time they reached Maumee, Ohio, it was 2:30 a.m. and the Supercharger there was buried.
Before catching some rest, John called Tesla to report the situation. The person on the other end of the line recommended sleep and promised they’d see what they could do. By 8 a.m. the next morning, the snow had been cleared. Though it was 6 degrees, thanks to Tesla’s bend-over-backwards service, the Glenneys were soon to be on their way.
John Glenney has driven long distances before. He’s made the trip from Southern California to Lexington, Ky. more times than he prefers to remember, in everything from a pickup truck to a Cadillac Escalade, often completing it in 36 hours or so. He doesn’t recommend it. “You’re tempted to push on whether you should or not,” he says. The convenience of a 5-minute fill-up at the next gas station makes that easy enough, but Glenney says the toll on his body the next couple of days always made him regret him. And he’s not much of a fan of those gas stations either.
“I’m like everyone that realizes that we need to move toward sustainable energy,” Glenney says. “I’ve always hated big companies and oil companies that only care about their bottom line. For at least 5 years, I’ve been looking at alternatives.” He got on the waiting list for a Nissan Leaf, but the state-by-state rollout of that car meant he wouldn’t see it in Kentucky for a while. Frustrated, he sought alternatives and found there was just one: the Tesla Roadster. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right now,” Glenney believes.
And Glenney knows he was fortunate enough to be able to look past the $109,000 sticker price. The horse farm is Glenney’s second act. “Back in the early 1990s, I started a company. It was doubling every 10 months for 4 years, which was fun. Then it was a lot of headaches. Then it was a pain in the ass. So I sold it to a bigger company and got out. They were willing to pay me more than it was worth and I could go off and raise racehorses.”
But despite his love for fast animals, he wasn’t seeking speed on the road. “I didn’t want a sports car. I wasn’t in the market for a sports car,” he recalled. Apparently, it was the best electric car out there so i bought it. And I loved it.”
Glenney loved the Roadster so much he decided to take it cross country. But back in 2011 there was no such thing as a Supercharger, so recharging meant 3-5 hour stops (or more) at campgrounds where a dryer outlet was available. It also meant going it alone and packing light since the Roadster has enough room for 2 people, but not if they bring anything with them. Glenney made that trip in 7 days, taking a straight shot across the nation’s heartland mostly on I-80. When you have your pick of campgrounds, you just go straight and so the journey from D.C. to Tesla’s Menlo Park, Calif. location was right around 3000 miles.
It don’t come easy
The Supercharger map today doesn’t draw a nice, neat line across America. Presumably to allow Musk to retrace the journey of his youth, Tesla has prioritized a route that nearly no one would choose for a Cannonball Run, EV-style. While all of this will be a distant memory soon enough as the network expands, today the trip currently forces drivers to head south after entering Utah, swing back into New Mexico and only then head west through Arizona and into California. But ahead of the Glenneys looms a bigger problem.
Normally, west out of Chicago means a not-always-thrilling, but fairly routine journey through American agriculture land: lots of Iowa and Nebraska on the way to Denver. But today, in a Tesla, you have no choice but to head north into Wisconsin before crossing through Minnesota, South Dakota and Wyoming before reaching the Mile High City.
The cold that morning in Ohio had an effect on charging the car. Apparently, the battery won’t take a full-power charge until it too has gotten a bit warmed up. Glenney actually has three Model S sedans on the farm in Kentucky. He got the first one in December of 2012, becoming an early purchaser of the vehicle. But that car is home in Lexington because it can’t take the very highest speed charging available at the Superchargers. That morning in Ohio, Glenney is learning even the newest Teslas can’t do much when they are ice cold, though. Had they been able to plug in the night before when the car was warm this likely doesn’t happen, but there was the snowbank to deal with. Still, after a few extra minutes, they are back on the road.
The tire sensor on the Tesla is being ornery and with thousands of miles to go, John decides to stop in at the Highland Park, Ill. service center and ask them to look at it. It’s apparently nothing to be concerned about and so they continue on to Madison, Wis. Glenney notes that the recharge is actually completed before he and Jill finish dinner that night. It’s to become a common theme on the trip. Glenney says they charged for anywhere from 20 to 70 minutes depending on how far the next leg was going to be. Occasionally, they’d wind up with more charge than planned because, like tonight, the meal ran longer than expected. They rarely found themselves waiting for the charging to finish; typically the car waited for them.
Ice ice, baby
It’s supposed to be 22 below that night in Minnesota so the Glenneys decide to tackle it the next day. John says this is a good time to have a fuller charge. “If your car was left on the side of the road, you couldn’t get out, you would die from the cold.” The Glenneys have developed some fans on the Tesla forums by this point who realize something special is going on. They are reading all the positive responses from Tesla enthusiasts and starting to feel the energy.
When John asked Jill to come with him on the trip, she was skeptical. “At first, it’s like, ‘My crazy dad wants to go cross country in an electric car. I’ll humor him,’ ” he says. But Jill’s an adventurer, according to John. She went to Greece by herself last summer, “ on her own dime.” As John posts updates and Jill starts reading what everyone is saying, it becomes clear to her something important is happening. “She didn’t really get the implications at first.” The next day in Minnesota would be the most harrowing of the journey and by the time it was over, Jill would come to fully appreciate her role in this first-of-its-kind trip.
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When the Glenneys leave La Crosse, Wis. the weather has now reached “truly awful” status. The Polar Vortex is bearing down, snow is blowing sideways, and the 125-mile journey to Albert Lea, Minn. takes the battery range meter from 227 all the way down to 28. John is pleased, “Our friends at Tesla sited these superchargers just the right distance apart,” he wrote on the forum after that leg. But the Glenneys still have to get from Albert Lea to Worthington and so they try to top up the range again, even though it’s just 116 miles away. Because of the way the Superchargers work, it’s easy to get the battery nearly full and harder to truly push it to capacity. They set out with 225 miles of range.
Visibility on this leg is getting worse. The only good news about the weather is that it means no one can drive much faster than the Glenneys, who are again in battery conservation mode with the wind and the cold clearly having some effect, mostly the former. When they reach Worthington, the battery gauge reads 7. Combined with the white out conditions, this makes the close call in Somerset from the first day seem like a walk in the park. But the Glenneys are practically exultant having reached this point.
“I am enjoying the adventure so far and love seeing the country in this way, plus it’s a great excuse to take a week off work!” Jill posts to the forum. “I have had the opportunity to learn a lot about and drive these cars since my dad has had them the past few years but the addition of the Superchargers has made this road trip a very unique experience. The only downside is attempting to drive in this in Minnesota weather… which is why I’m writing this and HE is driving.”
Jill ends up taking the wheel soon after that post but the weather literally forces her to pull over. “I can’t see anything,” John recalls her saying. In an act of faith, he decides to take back the controls and tells Jill that the weather will clear up in half an hour. He can’t call Tesla for help on this one but someone higher up apparently gets his message. Though the temperature outside is below zero, the skies clear and the Glenneys are rolling at nearly 70 mph once again. Suddenly, Minnesota is behind them and they’re in South Dakota.
You gotta be in it to win it
John is a competitive sort and a bit of a gambler. That’s partly what attracted him to racehorses and partly why he wanted to leave on this trip in the middle of winter. When he bought the Model S, he didn’t even know Tesla was planning the Supercharger network. Once he learned about, he thought back to the Roadster trip and how great it would be to drive the Model S across America using nothing but free Tesla Superchargers. “Not only do I really want to do, I’d really like to be first,” he mused. Tesla wasn’t making promises about when the trip would even be possible, but the company’s many fans were watching closely.
A new Superchargers was opening practically every other day in 2014 and, with each one, the possibility of making it cross country was getting tantalizingly closer. Just a day before the Glenneys finished their journey and actually unaware they’d even begun it, I was confident enough that it was possible so I wrote: “As Tesla Finishes One West-To-East Mission, Another Is Just Beginning.” John Glenney was one step ahead of me. When he and his daughter left Hoboken, they’d figured that if something went wrong early in Pennsylvania, so be it. But as for something going wrong later, well that was up to Tesla.
As of Monday morning, there was no operational Supercharger in Cheyenne, Wyo. near the southern border of the state nor one in Kingman, Ariz. on the western edge. When the Glenneys started, they couldn’t actually finish.But by sometime Tuesday, the Wyoming problem was solved as Tesla’s work there was done. On Wednesday, the same was true in Arizona. John could scarcely have picked a better day to begin. The Glenneys rested in Murdo, S.D. that night; the next day they’d be in Cheyenne. Though the temperatures remained icy, the blue skies brightened their attitudes and allowed them to appreciate the sights.
John recalled an RV trip the family had taken years ago out toward Yellowstone and took a moment to put this one in context. “One thing that seems clear already is that the system works!” he wrote. “No one would choose to take a road trip to see the sights in mid winter, but even under the harshest conditions, the car and chargers work perfectly.” Well, almost perfectly. In Cheyenne, John plugs in and nothing happens. Is the Supercharger not really ready after all? Fortunately, each location has multiple plugs to connect to and another one works fine. The next stop is Silverthorne, Colo. It’s only about 165 miles, but the Rocky Mountains present their own challenge. Climbing costs a lot of charge.
A friendly enthusiast who lives in between Cheyenne and Silverthorne has tested the run and believes the Glenneys will make it so long as they don’t get too lead-footed on the way. After much building, though, this leg proves to be easy as they cruise in with 35 miles left on the indicator. Soon after, they reach Grand Junction and hit their 20th Supercharger, breaking some unofficial record for using the most different Superchargers on a single journey. The trip is starting to get routine and the big question now is whether Jill will be at LAX in time for her Saturday night red eye home.
Within hours, the Glenneys, who had been “Jill and John” to the growing base of fans” have been “outed” by a forum poster. John confirms that they’ve been identified correctly, talks about his horses, and reminds everyone, “The race isn’t over till you cross the finish line.” By now, with 23 Superchargers used, they’ve obliterated the old mark. They continue the race against the red eye and end the fifth night in Gallup, N.M., just outside of Arizona. Tesla itself is now aware of the trip and preparing to greet the Glenneys. But John senses they are reluctant to commit too much in the way of PR resources lest something go wrong. The company has enough run-ins with the media to know that if they spin up local TV and then the car breaks down 30 miles from the engineering center in Hawthorne, Calif. — where the Glenneys will consider the trip complete — it would look bad.
Still, a successful straight shot from Gallup to Flagstaff, Ariz. has started things off well after a 4:15 a.m. wakeup call last Saturday morning. A forum poster recounts a story from the turn of the previous century he had read on HowStuffWorks about Horatio Nelson Jackson’s bet that he could drive an early automobile across the country, which had yet to be achieved at the time. He wagered $50 that he could do it in less than 90 days. John Glenney had made a different kind of wager when Tesla shares were trading at $22. he bought some, selling them 2 years later and using the proceeds to buy his fleet of Model S sedans. He was about to make some history of his own.
John can sense this. “When I made the first post I wasn’t sure there would be interest,” he wrote. The words of encouragement have been comforting. Before we left, I described the trip to non-EV people and they asked why I was doing this, and the only response was “because we can!” The Glenneys’ new fans are beginning to mass in Hawthorne to greet them. That evening, they cheer as the Glenneys pull into the Hawthorne charging bay having done something that was literally not possible when they set out 6 days and 3,619 miles earlier.
As of this writing, a team of Tesla vehicles, with company personnel, is making the Glenneys’ trip in reverse, trying to set a world-speed record. In equally awful weather, they’ve made it from California to South Dakota in just 2 days. While storms threaten the next stretch of that journey, it’s likely the two Tesla teams will make it Sunday morning. What they won’t do, though, is be the first to make the trip across the country solely on the network their company built. That honor goes to a father and daughter. A couple of gamblers and pioneers who figured they could and then proved they can.