Getting tired of all the Tesla stories? I'm not. Getting away from the sideshow that is Elon Musk v. The NYT there's a much deeper truth about transportation and EVs buried in this story: driving a car from D.C. to Boston is a bad idea for most people. There's a much smarter, cheaper, and faster way to get from D.C. to Boston that's also environmentally friendly.
I love driving. I love it. I try to drive everywhere I can. But there's driving and there's commuting and taking a car from D.C. to Boston, by the most direct route, is a mostly terrible form of commuting if you're trying to get somewhere quickly. Loving cars does not mean you love sitting in traffic.
The fastest way, of course, is a plane, but that's a lot of carbon and it's not cheap (roughly $200+ if you want a direct flight within a week). Commuting in a car is slower at about eight hours, but if it's just the driver it's an inefficient way to travel.
So let's look at the trip from D.C. to Boston using the Tesla Model S, which is the best EV you can buy today. Certainly, it's possible to do it using the Tesla Superchargers, as demonstrated by CNN Money last week and as would have been demonstrated by the NYT if they'd have picked a better prepped reporter.
Because you're using solar-powered Superchargers you're also using very green energy, so good for you. Upkeep of the roads, et cetera, make it not entirely carbon neutral but this is a great feature of the Supercharger.
But the trip? Because you have to stop and charge twice it'll take you a whopping 13 hours to do. That's about five hours worse than taking a gas-powered car and you're spending that time nowhere you want to be unless you really like McDonalds. There are, also, tolls, (anywhere from $0 to $40 depending on how you travel and when) so the trip isn't entirely free.
Still, if you want to travel from D.C. to Boston there's no other faster way to get there in an all-electric vehicle unless… you take the train. There's very good train service from D.C. to Boston. The best in the country. And it's the only corridor in the U.S. that's purely electric.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, "trips along the eastern seaboard between Washington, D.C. and Boston are best made on rail." When they said that the Model S wasn't out yet, but I still agree with this statement. I'll let them lay out the green angle:
Passenger trains produce an average of 0.43 pound of carbon dioxide emissions per passenger-mile. However, America has two distinct types of train service: that in the Northeast Corridor (from Washington, DC, to Boston), which runs on electricity, and the rest of the Amtrak network, which operates on diesel. Northeast Corridor trains average 0.37 pound of CO2 emissions per passenger-mile while all other Amtrak trains average 0.45 pound—about 20 percent more.
These emission rates are quite good compared with, say, a typical car with one passenger, which emits 1.08 pounds of CO2 per passenger-mile. Perhaps even more important, however, is the fact that a train often offers what amounts to a carbon “free ride,” as it is an underused travel mode in many areas of the country
I'm still going to give the edge to the Model S on this one if you use only use Superchargers, especially considering where the energy for Amtrak is likely coming from, but it's not as big a difference as you'd imagine.
Cost? Ignoring tolls, the Tesla Model S trip is essentially "free" and the Amtrak trip varies a lot based on when you leave and which train you take. If you book a month out the trip is $70 for the 4:52 am train, which is pretty inconvenient. You're much better off with the $99 option, which leaves at a reasonable 7:25 AM and gets into Boston's Back Bay station at 3:05 PM.
Considering you're paying around $100,000 for your Model S you're going to have to make more than 1,000 one-way trips to make up the cost (or roughly half as many round trips). That's a lot of trips, although at the end of it you'd either get a Model S, which is pretty sweet, or you'd just have a crap ton of free trips if you use Amtrak Guest Rewards (which you should in this situation).
You could cry that the Amtrak is government-subsidized... but so is the Tesla Model S. There's no escaping it.
There's another hidden cost, though. Driving from D.C. to Boston in the Model S, if you want to make it without needing a tow, is about 13 hours with charging. The Amtrak trip is roughly an eight-hour trip. That's five hours of savings for each trip. Sure, there will be delays, but there's also traffic, so we'll call it even.
Over 1,000 trips that's 5,000 hours you're saving. Assuming you think your time is worth $10 per hour that's $50,000 in wasted time if you're driving.
Having been a passenger/driver in a Model S, and having taken the Amtrak between D.C. and NYC many times, I think you're much better off in the train. Sure, the Model S has a nice interior and you look like you're living in the future, but driving at 55 mph on the New Jersey turnpike with the heater off in the winter sounds terrible (as Chelsea Sexton nicely points out).
You know what the train trip is like? A big, cushy seat. Free WiFi that's about as reliable as the Tesla's. If you're driving the Model S you shouldn't be using the big touchscreen tablet. If you're in an Amtrak car you can relax and stare at a DVD as opposed to staring at the angry truckers wondering why the hell you're driving so slowly and wearing a parka. Victory Amtrak.
Take the Acela and you're spending more money but it's nicer, faster, and also feels hi-tech (unless you've been somewhere with real trains... like China).
Let's listen to David Roberts over at Grist who makes this point succinctly:
The problem, however, is not merely that our cars consume too much oil. It’s that our transportation system consumes too much oil. A better system won’t merely involve better cars, it will involve driving less, telecommuting more, using more public transportation, sharing cars, making cars smarter, and building more and better electrical infrastructure.
If you want to be cool and green and save money and not spend your time on joyless road trips then take the train. If you want to Drive Free or Die you're also still better off taking the train and using the money/time you save for a vintage car you can drive somewhere better than the turnpike.