Road Tripping Around Europe in a Tesla Is Less Fun Than You’d Think

Road Tripping Around Europe in a Tesla Is Less Fun Than You’d Think

Driving an electric car around town is one thing, but what happens on a long road trip? I can tell you: A lot, not all of it good.

As a resident of Paris, I’ve driven plenty of electric vehicles. The city has had shared battery-powered cars since 2011, and there are charging docks in every neighborhood. But I’d only taken short rides, and I wanted to see how it felt to drive an electric car hundreds of miles from home.

I was inspired by Bertha Benz, the wife and financial backer of Karl Benz. In 1888, Bertha took the first long-distance journey in a car—110 miles round-trip between the German towns of Mannheim, where Karl filed the patent for the first automobile, and nearby Pforzheim—giving the public a glimpse of the open-top three-wheeler vehicle that would soon displace the horse-drawn carriage.

In a nod to Bertha Benz, I decided to make a 715-mile battery-powered voyage from Paris to Mannheim and back.

With everyone from Aston Martin to Volvo rolling out battery-powered models, and Britain and France on track to ban gasoline cars by 2040, the industry is clearly changing direction.

Drivers are less convinced. A recent Deloitte survey showed fewer than 6 percent of European consumers are ready to go full-electric in 2019. A major roadblock, of course, is the price—still higher than similar gasoline-powered cars—but the threat of running out of juice is also a huge concern.

Specifically, consumers fret that there aren’t enough chargers. According to a survey by Ipsos Mori, 41 percent of Germans and 36 percent of French fear not being able to top up their battery—more than twice the percentage that cited insufficient range as an impediment to buying an electric car.

With 215 miles on a full charge, the 2015 Tesla Model S had the biggest range I could find to rent. The distance was more than rivals like the BMW i3 or the Renault Zoe: cars that are both advertised as primarily for city driving. And although I rented a Tesla, it could’ve been any other make or model: I didn’t care so much about the model as I did about testing Europe’s charging infrastructure.

On a quiet Sunday morning, I head east toward the Champagne region and the German border. I don’t know it yet, but I’m entering an alternate universe in which the laws of road trips will be turned on their head. Over the next four days, I’ll spend 11 hours and 42 minutes charging—and that’s not counting failed attempts and time wasted on detours to stations—on what Google Maps tells me should be a 10-hour trip.

Day 1: Glamour at Burger King

Successful charge

Failed attempt

Paris

Charging

time

1.4 hours

Reims

Chalons-en-

Champagne

FRANCE

BELGIUM

LUX.

6.2 hours

Saarbrucken

GERMANY

30 miles

Mannheim

30 km

Successful charge

Failed attempt

BELGIUM

GERMANY

Charging

time

LUX.

1.4 hours

Reims

6.2 hours

Saarbrucken

Mannheim

Chalons-en-

Champagne

Paris

30 miles

FRANCE

30 km

Successful charge

Failed attempt

BELGIUM

GERMANY

Charging

time

LUX.

1.4 hours

Reims

6.2 hours

Saarbrucken

Mannheim

Chalons-en-

Champagne

Paris

FRANCE

30 miles

30 km

A stop at a Tesla Supercharger is straightforward; pop open a socket, unhook the connector like you would a gas-pump nozzle, plug in, and wait. This seemed simple enough.

Still, there’s a learning curve, especially for a long-distance novice like me. Gregory Derouet of Paris consultancy Mazars told me: “Don’t do what you usually do, because it’s no longer about driving until the tank flashes near-empty, and stopping for five minutes to fill it.” Ideally, I should make frequent, short charging stops.

I say ideally because while charging infrastructure in cities is relatively advanced—Paris has more than 1,000 public stations—in the countryside, there are fewer options. While Tesla’s website shows roughly 600 Supercharger stations in the U.S., it has only around 400 in Europe, 65 of them in France (with a total of 220 charging docks). That doesn’t feel like much for a country roughly the size of Texas with more than double its population. By comparison, France has more than 11,000 gas stations. The huge difference means trips need to be entirely rethought. It’s no wonder Tesla does a lot of handholding with new buyers to help smooth out the initial awkwardness.

The choice of dock is important: Unlike gas pumps, chargers vary in the time it takes to refill your battery. Tesla’s Superchargers today lead the pack, topping you up at a rate of about 6 miles of range per minute of charging at the very maximum, though the average speed over an entire charge is much slower. And for Tesla owners, charging is free, at least for now. But other automakers are racing to develop even faster alternatives.

    Less than two hours into my trip, I hit my first speed bump. About 50 miles from what I’d planned as my first pit stop, an inn near Chalons-en-Champagne, my dashboard tells me the Supercharger there is “temporarily unavailable.” Tesla has installed its chargers at many upscale hotels, and I’d been looking forward to a gourmet lunch while my car refueled.

    I’m lucky because Champagne, with its vineyards, chateaux, and cellars such as Ruinart and Moet & Chandon, has two other Superchargers. In most cities in France and Germany there’s a maximum of one. The bad news is, the one I found wasn’t at a gourmet restaurant, but a highway rest stop with a Burger King.

    I decide to do a full charge as my hotel is still 145 miles away. It takes a tedious 85 minutes, and I dine on a Whopper and fries. Two other Teslas show up while I’m there, and I notice the drivers stay in their cars and make calls or play on their phones during the refill.

    The rest stop also has a station called KiWhi, which says it offers France’s biggest charging network. KiWhi has partnerships with the likes of Nissan and Volkswagen, and their customers get an access card. But as a Tesla driver, I would have had to sign up online days earlier and gotten the card posted to me—frustratingly retro in the era of quick app downloads.

    My hotel that night is in Saarbrucken, just over the German border. There’s a less-powerful “Tesla Destination Charger,” but it’s fine because I can plug in overnight. That’s a relief because my car’s battery has over-promised and under-delivered, as I’ve driven at France’s highway speed limit of about 80 miles per hour. When I pull up to the hotel, the battery indicator shows 39 miles of juice left—28 miles less than the computer had predicted when I left the Burger King. The battery recycles the energy from the brakes to recharge, but the effect is marginal.

    Day 2: Me and Mrs. Benz

    Successful charge

    Failed attempt

    Paris

    FRANCE

    BELGIUM

    LUX.

    Saarbrucken

    GERMANY

    Mannheim

    30 miles

    Ladenburg

    30 km

    Successful charge

    Failed attempt

    BELGIUM

    GERMANY

    LUX.

    Ladenburg

    Mannheim

    Saarbrucken

    Paris

    30 miles

    FRANCE

    30 km

    Successful charge

    Failed attempt

    BELGIUM

    GERMANY

    LUX.

    Ladenburg

    Mannheim

    Saarbrucken

    Paris

    FRANCE

    30 miles

    30 km

    Range anxiety is hardly new. When Bertha Benz got behind the wheel (it was actually more of a lever) of her car, there were no gas stations. So she stopped at a pharmacy to fill up with industrial quantities of a fluid called ligroin, more commonly used to remove grease stains from dresses and suits.

    I arrive at the birthplace of the automobile around midday. The Mannheim region is steeped in automobile culture, with streets named after Benz and Mercedes, a replica of the first motorcar where I sit in the driver’s seat for a photo, and the Automuseum Dr. Carl Benz, with hundreds of vintage cars.

      The area has several charging points, but after searching for one via Google Maps—like any other tourist—I’m directed to a shopping district with no place to plug in. I’m tired and hungry, and although my dashboard shows a Supercharger about five miles outside the city, I decide to go directly to my hotel, a half mile away.

      The hotel has no charger, just a standard electric socket in the basement garage between two noisy machines that look like old air conditioners. The parking spot next to the charger is marked “private” but I back in anyway and fetch a standard charging plug from the trunk. A honking noise inside the vehicle tells me something’s wrong, and a prompt asks me to double-check the connection. After several failed attempts I give up. It’s spitting rain outside, so I figure I’ll deal with charging in the morning.

      Day 3: The Journey Home

      Successful charge

      Failed attempt

      Paris

      Chalons-en-

      Champagne

      FRANCE

      Argers

      BELGIUM

      LUX.

      Goldene

      Bremm

      Saarbrucken

      GERMANY

      1.5 hours

      Kaiserslautern

      30 miles

      Ladenburg

      30 km

      Successful charge

      Failed attempt

      BELGIUM

      GERMANY

      1.5 hours

      Kaiserslautern

      LUX.

      Goldene

      Bremm

      Ladenburg

      Argers

      Saarbrucken

      Paris

      Chalons-en-

      Champagne

      30 miles

      FRANCE

      30 km

      Successful charge

      Failed attempt

      BELGIUM

      GERMANY

      1.5 hours

      Kaiserslautern

      LUX.

      Goldene

      Bremm

      Ladenburg

      Argers

      Saarbrucken

      Paris

      Chalons-en-

      Champagne

      FRANCE

      30 miles

      30 km

      A lot of the trip feels like a school math problem. Still in bed shortly after sunrise, I start calculating distances to figure out where to refill along Bertha Benz’s route to Pforzheim and then back toward home. It’s about 300 miles from Ladenburg to Chalons via Pforzheim, and I start the day with 108 miles on my battery. What’s the best route, with the shortest charging time? Answer: Skip Pforzheim, charge once. I’m sure Bertha would understand. I top up at a Supercharger an hour’s drive from the hotel: one that’s not directly near the highway but doesn’t involve straying too far.

      On my way back to Paris, I explore other options to see what life would be like for non-Tesla drivers. A Dutch company called Allego promises simplicity and affordability at stations across Europe, with easy access via an app. I find one near the border, but it’s at a BMW dealership and reserved for BMW cars only. Tesla (and other brands) aren’t welcome, the assistant says.

        On the A6 Autobahn, I spot a sign with an electric plug icon—the first one I’ve seen. It directs me to a charger by EnBW, next to the gas pumps at a rest stop. It looks a lot like the KiWhi box I’d encountered in France, but with on-the-spot sign-up. I download an app, input personal details and credit card information, and scan a QR code. It doesn’t work. “We’re sorry!” the app says.

        I’m sorry too, because my battery is running low and the car is asking me to slow down if I want to make it to my hotel. While other drivers zip past on the no-speed-limit Autobahn, I stick to the right lane and plod along below the 68 miles per hour the Tesla computer has calculated as prudent.

        I reach my hotel in France much later than anticipated and find there’s not even a standard wall plug in the parking lot. They’re planning to build a dock in the coming months, but for now, I’m out of luck. I’ve got 27 miles of range left.

        Day 4: Baby It’s Cold Outside

        Successful charge

        Failed attempt

        Paris

        0.6 hours

        Marne-la-

        Vallee

        1.8 hours

        Chalons-en-

        Champagne

        FRANCE

        BELGIUM

        LUX.

        GERMANY

        30 miles

        Mannheim

        30 km

        Successful charge

        Failed attempt

        BELGIUM

        GERMANY

        LUX.

        Mannheim

        0.6 hours

        Marne-la-

        Vallee

        Paris

        1.8 hours

        Chalons-en-

        Champagne

        30 miles

        FRANCE

        30 km

        Successful charge

        Failed attempt

        BELGIUM

        GERMANY

        LUX.

        Mannheim

        0.6 hours

        Marne-la-

        Vallee

        Paris

        1.8 hours

        Chalons-en-

        Champagne

        FRANCE

        30 miles

        30 km

        Batteries are moody. They don’t really like fast European highway speeds, and they tend to react badly to low temperatures. As the mercury dropped overnight, so did the power in my battery. In the morning the car says it can go 22 miles. Even though the Tesla’s estimates of remaining power have been off by at least 10 percent every time I’ve gotten behind the wheel, that should still get me to the closest Supercharger, 7 miles away.

        I soon get a warning that my battery level will get dangerously low if the temperature falls any further. I take a page from the low-battery playbook I use with my phone. I shut off Spotify, turn down the dashboard’s brightness, and cut off Bluetooth connections. My phone needs a charge too, and I know it’s silly but I can’t bring myself to plug it in for fear it will further drain the Tesla. The battery icon beside the steering wheel has fallen into the red zone, and I’m doing my best to keep my eyes on the road rather than on the declining number of miles remaining.

        I make it to the Supercharger with 11 miles to spare. It’s the inn where I’d wanted to stop the first day—now fixed—and over a leisurely lunch as I refill, I consider switching to electric for my next weekend trip or even the summer holidays. After all, battery capacity is improving fast, carmakers are working on cutting back charging times, and Tesla and its rivals are rapidly expanding where to take a pit stop.

          But as I head toward Paris, range anxiety still feels too real, and a lot of that has to do with a shortage of charging stations. For now, Tesla says the best place to fill up is at home—where most charging takes place—though it plans to keep expanding its Supercharger network to make it easier to travel longer distances.

          I remember the advice I got before setting out: stop frequently for short refills. Until charging pit-stops become as common and standardized as gas pumps, all-electric road trips will have to be planned around refilling the battery, not the other way around. And consumers will likely feel the same worries that Bertha Benz did—without a pharmacist to bail them out.