The weird thing about the road trip of the future is that it’s much more like the road trips we used to take in our past than anything else. My coworkers and I just did 1400-odd miles in an electric Tesla Model S that could also drive itself. It wasn’t just the trip of the future. It was the way things used to be, too.
The plan was simple: drive from Jalopnik HQ in New York City to the Detroit Auto Show in... Detroit. I’ve done this drive before and it takes nine and a half hours shooting straight across the flats of Ohio and the middle of Pennsylvania.
But I, as well as my coworkers and codrivers Mike Ballaban and Mike Roselli, had a Tesla Model S this time. And since the Tesla Model S is electric, we had to trace our route along Tesla’s network of Supercharger stations.
These Tesla-built electric pumps let you charge up your Tesla to near full in about half an hour and don’t cost you a single penny. That sounded great. You can charge a Tesla at a lot of places, but the Supercharger stations are the best, fastest ways to do it.
But the problem was Tesla hasn’t installed one of these million-dollar stations in the middle of Pennsylvania. So we couldn’t take the direct route. Instead we had to route ourselves north, up to the Supercharger in Albany, to an overnight charger at Niagara Falls, and on to Detroit through Canada and its Supercharger stations in the expanses of southern Ontario.
There’s some humor in this. We were in a Tesla Model S 90D, one of the quickest sedans in the world, and it was going to take us longer to do this trip than it would in any slow, old, gas-powered car.
But a nine-and-a-half hour drive in a slow old gas-powered car is fucking exhausting. You spend the whole trip watching the road. You’re looking out for 18-wheelers and texting drivers who are weaving into your lane. You’re going insane when not-quite traffic in the middle of nowhere throttles you down to two miles an hour under the speed limit. You end up driving through some of the most beautiful country in the world, and your eyes are glued to the dotted white lines passing you by.
It’s mesmerizing, and not in a good way.
Compared to our Tesla drive, a conventional drive takes less time on paper, but it weighs so much more heavily in your life. Thanks to accommodating the route for charging, the Tesla takes longer (a whole day longer), but the experience isn’t like losing another day of your life to the road; it’s like gaining one back.
The trick of it is in Autopilot. Tesla’s current beta doesn’t work like how you would imagine a self-driving car to function. You can’t flip it on in the middle of your residential street, napping on your way to pick up a pizza. The car needs to be able to see clear lines marking out its lane before it can work.
That means that the system really only works on the highway. And in that environment, it doesn’t really act like a self-driving car; it acts like a regular car that has the world’s best cruise control.
The step change is that you can take your hands off the wheel in the same way that a regular cruise control lets you take your feet off the pedals. How Autopilot engages in the Tesla even works the same way as cruise control. You use the same stalk, only you pull back twice instead of once.
And that sounds like a simple, evolutionary change, but the effect it has on you is revolutionary. At first, driving with the autopilot system on is incredibly stressful; you still watch the road with the same fear and alertness as you would in any old car. You still keep an eye on that wobbly trucker, watching to be sure he doesn’t cut you off.
But with Autopilot system on, instead of preparing for that possibility, all you do is worry. You worry if your Tesla is smart enough to also see that wobble in the wheel. You worry if the engineer at Tesla was hungover on the day he programmed that part of the car’s electronic brain. You have the same eye for danger, only the actions are taken out of your control.
The first time I tried Autopilot, I switched it off after half a minute. My coworker Mike Ballaban got a blood pressure headache after his first hour behind the wheel.
This feeling persists the first couple times you try the system. But eventually you learn to relax. Eventually you begin to trust the way the Tesla drives on its own. If you signal that you want to make a lane change, the Tesla will make that lane change for you.
And it’s smooth. Smoother than you are. The car acts significantly better at driving—more progressive, more relaxing—than most people I know. It’s a better driver than many people I know who are paid to drive cars.
After a while you stop freaking out at every lane change. You stop fretting about how the car will handle traffic. You learn to peel your eyes off the mind-numbing view of the highway and you start to look around. By the time we hit Ontario I was regularly turning around to carry a conversation with Mike in the passenger seat and Other Mike in the back seat.
He, uh, wasn’t particularly happy about that at first. But everyone got used to it. If somebody pointed out something cool out the side window, I would look over at it. I got bored and started taking pictures while I was in the driver’s seat. I wasn’t getting tired, either.
More than that, I was seeing more of the world than I would see on a regular road trip. And this was all down to the route the Tesla’s electric drivetrain forced us on.
Like I said, in a gas-powered car, this trip would have taken about nine and a half hours, shooting straight across Pennsylvania on I-80 and other major interstates.
The thing about those huge highways is you don’t get to see anything. They are non-places. They are A-to-B experiences. America is still a gorgeous and interesting country, but you don’t get any of that following the interstates. They give you nothing to see in between the cities they get you to. And even when you pass through some actual node of humanity or interest, there are concrete barriers to fence in the horrible drone of highway traffic.
Worst of all, every time you stop, you end up at some rest stop on the side of the highway, designed to look exactly like the rest stop before it and the one after. You eat gas station peanuts and you suck the life out of the little towns and sights of the country.
The Supercharger route to Detroit forced us into Canada instead. What a blessing that turned out to be.
There was just so much more that we saw. I’d never seen Niagara Falls in the winter. I’d never seen how the spray freezes on trees and grass and makes the whole world look entombed in ice. I’d never stopped on the far side of the Canada border, seen how grim and grey and desolate and Reno-in-the-1970s it looks, bad waffle breakfast spots and all.
I’d never seen the profound sadness of a blackjack dealer arguing about what taxes Canada takes on Powerball tickets, nor would I have ever crossed the American border with a Cuban cigar in my backpack.
If we had taken the regular route, we would have gotten in to Detroit a day sooner, but I’d have missed some of the best chicken wings in my life, a store full of rare old Atari cartridges, and uncountable little moments of sights and laughter and ease in the car taking the long way to the auto show.
This is how road trips used to be; you used to take smaller roads and see smaller towns and eat at smaller, better spots than you do following the manufactured sameness of big highways. Tesla’s supercharger network, as it stands, forces you into this vintage approach.
And it’s simply better than the kind of unblinking, dull, interstate road trip we have been building for the past half century.
Eventually, Tesla will build more supercharger stations, and the straight shot between Detroit and NYC will be possible in an electric car. Eventually it, and other cars, will probably be able to drive across the country with little to no human input at all. I guess I don’t know how long this old school drive in this new school car will last.
It’s funny to think that the days of the Road Trip of the Past in the Car of the Future may be numbered.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.