the joys of vertical integration

One of the many benefits of Tesla vaunted vertical integration is well illustrated by the announcement that off-peak charging will be free at Tesla Superchargers in the California over the Thanksgiving holiday period.

Because Tesla owns all its own charging infrastructure it has a comprehensive view of charging patterns and spikes across its network. This allows it to react to congestion which can be a major problem where there is a large concentration of Tesla EVs.

The company has already tried variable pricing during the day to even out spikes and it has even developed its own mobile Superchargers to boost capacity at high pressure sites. It is able to do this because it makes not only its own chargers but also Megapacks – very large lithium storage batteries which is sells through its power business.

Another reason why Tesla is going to be so hard for automakers to beat.

Teslas drive further

No, I’m not talking about range – the perpetual first question in any discussion with non-ev-drivers. I talking about a survey by the RAC, a motoring organisation in the UK, which found that Tesla drivers drive more miles on average than drivers of any other car.

In the first three years of owning a new car, Tesla drivers cover an average of 12,459 miles a year. Meanwhile, Mercedes owners clocked 12,100 miles each year, and Volvo owners averaged 11,578 miles.

This compares to an average of 10,377 miles per year for the average of all cars in their first three years of ownership, according to the Department of Transport.

I can corroborate. I drove an average of 10,000 miles a year in the 10 years I owned a Mercedes E Class. Since I have owned a Tesla Model X I have driven 15,000 in nine months and it would have been more if the Coronavirus hadn’t pretty much put paid to driving.

Electrek, who reported on the RAC survey, concludes: “Electric cars with bigger batteries and faster charging get driven and charged more.”

That is true – but the main thing is they are just so much more fun to drive!

Round One: Coronavirus

I took a picture of London from the top of the North Downs in 2017 after I was so struck by the visibility of the pollution hovering over the city. Last week I stopped again at the same spot and took roughly the same photo.

What is so striking is that after only five weeks of lockdown, the dramatic drop in traffic has had such a noticeable visual effect on the air quality.

TomTom, the navigation company, has provided graphs of various cities around the world showing the change in traffic.

What a difference it would make if we could effect a change like this but without the huge downside of a pandemic.

Some cities such as Milan are already planning to reclaim some of their streets inspired by the experience of the traffic-drop. And given that social distancing is likely to be here to stay for quite some time – at least until widespread vaccines are available, others are bound to follow suit.

Wired reports that many cities around the world have already blocked off city streets to provide more open spaces for people to safely navigate.

We could of course go back to normal after the pandemic is over but as The Economist eloquently illustrated coronavirus is merely Round One; the next battle is the big one.

There have been notable examples of self-less co-operation during the coronavirus challenge, but also many examples of narrow-minded, nationalistic responses following the lead of the catastrophically inadequate President of the United States.

We can only hope the sobering example of fighting a pandemic will create real impetus for change which can create a common will to deal with the biggest global challenge of all. Fingers crossed.

Tesla Service

I’ve taken my Tesla to the Dartford Service Centre today to have my camera “calibrated”.

This is needed because I had to replace the windscreen before Christmas after a stone cracked the glass (for the second time in as many months!)

The windscreen was replaced by Autoglass but they can’t calibrate the camera as they do on other vehicles because, they say, “Tesla won’t let them have the software”.

I suspect the reason for Tesla’s reluctance is because of the advanced autopilot system which relies heavily on the front camera for its correct functioning. Any errors in calibration could potentially cause malfunctioning automatic driving which would be something that Tesla would want to avoid.

The actual process is pretty slick – you book the appointment on the Tesla app and all the communication about it is thereafter done through text message.

When you arrive at the service centre you simply drive through the automatic door and then walk through to the adjacent service department to register. The service staff then take pictures of the car to record any damage (for the obvious reasons) and then ask you to sign to consent to the work.

Then, assuming it’s a short job, you sit in the lounge, drink the free coffee and wait until they tell you you car is ready. (If you’re out and about the app will tell you the car is ready.)

This is the experience in the UK but it is already being refined elsewhere in the world.

In Northern California where there are many, many more Teslas YouTuber All Electric describes his encounter with a fully automatic service experience, which, incidentally he wasn’t too thrilled about.

There you drive into the service bay, sign in via the dedicated iPads and get an Uber credit texted to you phone to take you home. Then the app tells you when the car is ready, you get another Uber credit and you can pick it up.

One of the things that frequently happens in the UK at the service centre is that people forget to turn off the pin-to-drive feature which means the technicians can’t drive the car until it has been unlocked with the unique pin you have set. And this can only be turned off in the car itself, not remotely through the app.

It’s not clear how the Californian service centre handles this, or how it deals with any subsequent claims over incidental damage while the car is being serviced in the absence of agreed photographic evidence.

As Tesla’s rapid growth continues it is inevitable that they have to innovate to try to keep up. We can expect more change in the experience in the future.

Tesla’s charging advantage

I travel most months to the Norfolk coast where our cottage does not have off-street parking and I cannot therefore charge my car overnight. As it’s about 150 miles away I need to charge while I’m there in order to have enough charge to get about and then get home again.

North Norfolk is practically a desert when it comes to rapid chargers but an enterprising local business did install one on their forecourt in a town about 15 miles from our cottage and this is where I’ve been charging up to now. (This was the catalyst which allowed me to buy my Tesla in the first place.)

Polar charger at Kellys Motor Services in North Walsham

On my most recent visit I noticed that the Morrisons in Cromer, the local town, has also installed one which is quite a bit more convenient.

Genie-Point chargers now at Morrisons stores

In theory both these chargers offer the same thing. They have three types of connection – AC type 2, Chademo and CCS. The fastest are the last two, both DC connections, and they are supposed to provide up to 50 KW of electricity.

Tesla Chademo adapter on the right and a CCS adapter on the left

In practice, though, not all chargers are created equal. In my my limited experience so far with these two, the Polar charger has provided the best speed using both my Chademo and CCS adapters – about 45 KW on a sustained basis. The Genie-Point charger would only charge on Chademo and gave me 30 KW.

There are differences in how the services work, too. Polar have a free smart card which allows touch access to the charger (you are billed monthly – £7 for the service charge and then electricity which is about as cheap as home). Genie-Point have a web app which you have to have an account which you have to put £10 into, and then it’s pay as you go from there. If you are in an area with poor mobile signal you could be in trouble as the app is the only way I could see of starting a charge, whereas Polar does everything through the RFID card.

So on paper the Polar charger wins, but there is another variable – location. The Polar charger is much further away and is on an out-of-the-way industrial estate which is 15 minutes walk from the nearest coffee shops in town. The Genie-Point charger is in Morrisons’ car park, near their facilities and also five minutes walk from the town centre. If you are charging for 40 minutes which is pretty typical on a rapid charger for a 100 KW Tesla then things like that matter.

Which brings me to the alternative. On my way back to London I have the option to use the Supercharger at Elevdon which is just off the A11.

The eight stall, 150 KW Elvedon supercharger

The eight stalls are never all occupied in my experience and I can get between 80 KW and 140 KW depending on the state of charge of my battery (the lower the better). The supercharger is right next door to a pub and restaurant. This is one of over 70 superchargers in the UK – by far the largest network of fast chargers in the country. To use them I just plug in and off it goes. I get charged automatically on my registered credit card and the Tesla app tells me when I’ve charged enough to get home.

The best option for me then at the moment is to charge in Cromer just enough to get to Thetford and then use the superior Tesla chargers and nearby facilities.

The contrast between my charging experiences in Norfolk demonstrates quite graphically how much of a lead Tesla has in the electric car market, and what a real challenge the other car companies who are launching dozens of new EVs in the next couple of years have to meet. Tesla’s charging solution is slick and intergrated; the patchwork of rapid chargers, all with different models and sign-up requirements are poor competition currently.

And Tesla is not standing still with more chargers planned for 2020, though not sadly for North Norfolk yet. I can but hope…

The figures

I owned my Mercedes E Class estate for nine years and drove it 116,067 miles. I put 14,822 litres of diesel into the tank over that time at a total cost to me of £20,470 or thereabouts.

Much worse than that, though, is that over that time I contributed 39.7 tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere. That is the main reason I wanted to make the switch away from fossil cars.

The Model X was more expensive than the equivalent diesel car (though it’s hard to compare, really, as there is no direct equivalent as any EV driver will tell you once they own one.)

More expensive to buy to much cheaper to run

But servicing and running costs will be considerable lower. The Mercedes, which, incidentally, was the most reliable I have ever owned, cost me about £700 a year in servicing costs excluding tyres and extraneous costs such as body repairs etc.

I would expect my Tesla to be a fraction of this as it doesn’t have oil or oil filters to change and has brakes which don’t wear out.

And running costs will be significantly reduced. I estimate it would cost me £6,134 for the electricity I will consume over the next nine years which means I will save over £14,000 on the running costs of the Merc.

Oh, and by the way, my electricity comes from Ecotricity and is entirely green.

Autopilot issues

Today’s 300 mile journey to Norfolk and back gave me a chance to test the latest over-the-air software update 2019.40.2.1. This one was meant to bring more confident automatic lane changes among a few other things.

My experience today was pretty mixed. Navigate on autopilot was not available for the first half of my drive for some reason and the navigate was, but auto lane changes other than the car’s recommended ones weren’t working at all.

On the other hand when it was working navigate on autopilot was much more snappy in recommending a lane change into both a faster and a slower lane. It felt much more like a human driving.

Hopefully we’ll be getting a patch soon. If it was all working it would be very much more functional that when I bought the car six months ago.

Note: in Europe the rules mean we have to confirm autopilot actions unlike in the US.

Charging

The great thing about electric vehicles is that they can be charged at home overnight. Just as we all do with our mobile phones you get used to the routine of charging and that way the car, and the phone, are always ready. For most people, most of the time this is going to be all the charging you need. It’s cheap and even cheaper if you have a tariff offering cut-price overnight electricity.

If you are out and about locally, say in a local shopping centre for instance, there are often charging points available, which are often free, which can be used to top up.

EV charging at a retail park in Charlton, South London

However, sometimes you are going to travel further and that will often mean charge en route. How frequently, and indeed if, you need to charge will depend on things like how long the journey is and what the range of your car is.

Older and smaller EVs may have a range of 100 miles or so; bigger and more modern cars may have ranges of up to 300 miles.

And it also matters what the weather is like. EVs are more efficient in the warm and dry and less so in the cold and wet, though the effect is nothing like as dramatic as myths would have you believe.

Needless to say, once you get used to it, charging on the road is not much of an issue. The GOMs (“guess-o-meters”) on EVs do a good job of predicting what the range of the current journey is likely to be and to provide map directions to the nearest charger as part of the in-car navigation. Rapid chargers then can recharge a car in typically 20-40 minutes, time for the loo and something to eat and drink.

Ecotricity Rapid chargers like this are available at most motorway services and other companies are busy building their own at sites on popular routes

And then there is the overnight stay where sometimes it is possible to get access to overnight charging – either through a standard plug which provides a charge, though a slow one, or at a “destination charger” (similar to the system most of us have at home) but provided by a hotel, pub, restaurant or whatever.

The number one issue for most people thinking about switching to electric cars is charging. Once you have an EV you realise things are much simpler than you thought.

Tesla changes

One thing you have to get used to as a Tesla owner is that there are going to be changes in the cars and sometimes it will feel like you missed out.

Between the time I ordered by car and it was delivered Tesla announced what is known as the Raven update to Model X and Model S cars. My car went into product on April 5th and on April 23rd Tesla announced an upgrade. From that point the cars being made would have active suspension, longer range, faster charging and a few other things. I had just missed the boat.

But that is how it goes with Tesla – it’s a fast moving company and things change. Prices go down after you’ve ordered your car, or, like me, improvements are made that you miss out on.

However, since almost everything on the car is software controlled, you also get updates unexpectedly. My car got Sentry Mode (which makes all the cameras record suspicious activity around your car), numerous computer games, Netflix and YouTube playback and a ream of updates to autopilot which make the car better and better. Even the windscreen wipers are getting better with the “Deep Rain” AI continually improving performance in different rainy conditions. I didn’t order any of these things.

Some day all cars will be made this way.

by Jim Muttram