Road tripping from Chicago to Boston and back isn’t that extreme an idea. It’s a little under 1,000 miles (the same distance from Chicago to Denver), and you can usually make it with a straight shot through Pennsylvania and only one or two stops for gas. If you want a challenge, try doing it by skipping Pennsylvania altogether—either go up through Canada or down through Baltimore. You could also add in a time limit—say, 48 hours to do it get there and return. And, oh yeah, trade up to an electric car, which adds in the danger of running out of power before getting to one of the infrequent charging stations along the way.
Or, for the truly adventurous (or insane), try all three at once. Which is just what attorney Tom Rammer and his friends attempted last month.
It all began last year at the annual American Cancer Society Skyline Soiree. Rammer, a 37-year-old attorney, found himself enjoying the open bar and hearing a new item come up for auction: a 48-hour loan of a brand-new Tesla S P85D, an electric car with a cash price of $87,500. The 691-horsepower vehicle can run for about 250 miles before it needs to recharge—the equivalent of about 89 miles per gallon of gasoline. The starting bid for that experience? Just $500.
Rammer had no plans to buy anything before the event, but texted in an offer anyway. After a few rounds, he was declared the winner, throwing down $700 for the two-day event. Right away, he thought: “What can I do with it?”
He settled on a long road trip with his friend Michael Kirby, a car-savvy physicist at Fermilab. Originally they picked Phoenix as the destination—a 26-hour drive that would allow them to drop the car off at a dealership there and fly back to Chicago. But when they mentioned the idea to Tesla, the company refused. The car needed to be returned to the Chicago dealership where it originated. When they asked if they could extend the 48 hours to be able to drive to Phoenix and back, Tesla again refused—they didn’t want them to put so many miles on one car. “They said no one had ever tried to go on a long road trip with it,” Rammer says. “No one had ever asked them the questions we were asking.”
A little while later, while still planning, Rammer mentioned the road trip idea to his friend Bo Jayatilaka, a visiting scientist from MIT who also works in Chicago as a physicist at Fermilab. Jayatilaka, who travels back to Chicago at least once every month, brought up the idea of driving to Boston—a 14-hour trip (not including all the stops to charge the car). They could pick him up and drive him back to Chicago. Tesla agreed to the plan, as long as they kept it to 48 hours only.
The three men, along with Jen Raaf, also a physicist, and Rammer’s wife, Laura Lanford, an engineering manager, mapped out a route based on the locations of superchargers (stations to quickly charge the battery of the Tesla for free), distances between them, and approximate time it would take to charge at each station.
But the planning didn’t stop there—Rammer decided they should document the excursion, so he got in touch with local videographer Brandon Phipps. Phipps and his team of five joined in on the trip. “I thought it was a fantastic idea,” says 24-year-old freelance videographer Josh Stone. “This is something that’s never been done before… more than 12 states in 48 hours in a Tesla.” The film crew, along with 4 Go Pros and 7 DSLR cameras, would follow the Tesla in two other cars.
The group finally settled on the May 29-31 weekend (Jayatilaka needed to be in Chicago by June 1 for the FIFE, or FabrIc for Frontier Experiments, workshop at Fermilab). They charged up, gassed up, and headed out.
May 29, 9 p.m. CST
48 hours left
The S P85D and two follow cars rolled out of Chicago at 9 p.m. central on Friday, May 29. The estimate was stopping to charge every 200 miles, so they decided on a longer distance route taking them through major cities—there’s a better chance you’ll find superchargers there, and not be stuck in the middle of Pennsylvania, which has zero of them. They would drive to Columbus, over the top of Maryland and up the coast of Delaware, through New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and finally reach Boston.
Within the group, five drivers took turns behind the wheel and napping in the Tesla. There were no hotel stops planned—they would sleep in the car—but the team did break for the bathroom and fast food whenever the car stopped at supercharge stations. Breaks were also a chance for the group to gauge which supercharger to hit next, based on how far they made it. The charges lasted anywhere from five minutes to an hour and a half. While the Tesla charged, the follow cars would gas up and drive ahead to plan video shots of the trip.
They drove the Tesla at a speed based on traffic, the slowest around 45 mph and up to 75. They lost time on their third and fourth legs through Maryland and West Virginia, which were lengthy 200-mile ranges, mostly through the Appalachian Mountains. Traveling up-hill took a lot of the car’s energy, and the navigation was signaling for them to slow down and take a detour to charge, which they ignored. By mid-afternoon on Saturday, Rammer realized they would not make it to Boston in time.
May 30, 8 p.m. EST
26 hours left
They got as far as Greenwich, Connecticut (180 miles outside of Boston) before deciding to turn back to be able to make it home on time. “Our worst case was only making it as far as Philly or New York, and we got significantly further than that, which is a feat in itself,” Palmer says. After calling Jayatilaka to update him on the news, they pulled into a supercharger in Springfield, Massachusetts (about 90 miles outside of Boston) to plan the trip back. Outside of a Panera and David’s Bridal, they calculated they’d need to make up two hours somehow. Jayatilaka had his wife drive him out to the meeting place, and the team left late that night for the drive back to Chicago—now with just over 22 hours to get back.
May 30, 11:30 p.m. EST
22 hours, 30 minutes left
In need of a shorter distance return route, they chose to cross through Canada—still avoiding the Pennsylvania no-mans-land and cutting down on time, but risking running out of charge. There are only five chargers between Ottawa and Detroit, over a distance of about 400 miles—and one would have taken them even further out of the way.
The decision posed a problem for the film crew, as only one videographer, Sam Paakkonen, had brought a passport. Paakkonen switched from a follow car to the Tesla to film what he could of the Canadian leg of the trip. “I was given all the cameras and audio equipment and the responsibility to document Ontario,” Paakonen says.
On the drive back, “we were running out of charge, we didn’t know how to optimize the car, and it was the longest distance between chargers we had,” Rammer says. At this point, the navigation system built into the car was in panic mode. “[It] was signaling that we needed to slow down and find a supercharger, but we had no choice but to keep going. We were too far to turn around. Eventually it said we were not going to make it, and we were going to be stranded.”
They continued on despite the navigation system’s bleating, finally limping in to a supercharger in Kingston, Ontario. From there, the team traveled through Toronto back into the States. They headed to a supercharger just south of Toledo to meet up with the follow cars, which had taken a stateside route.
May 31, 3:45 p.m. EST
6 hours, 15 minutes left
With the caravan reunited, the team raced across Indiana back to the dealership. Based on the calculations they made leaving Canada, they knew they were going to be coming in very close to the deadline. “I was pushing the speed a little bit cutting across Indiana,” Rammer admits. On top of the tight time frame, the film crew wanted to get footage of the return into Chicago. One car went to the planetarium to get a shot with the skyline, and the other followed the Tesla on Lake Shore Drive. “We were stuck at a gas station at the last second, we were rushing, we were dropping equipment, but we got the camera up and got the final shot,” says Palmer. The Tesla pulled into the dealership at 9:00 p.m. on May 31, 48 hours to the minute that they had left.
A few days later, the Tesla team met up again to celebrate the trip and discuss what had happened. “Doing a road trip shows the weakness of cars like Tesla, which is the infrastructure,” Jayatilaka says. “If there were charging stations in even half the frequency of gas stations, there would be no problem.” Rammer agrees and says that doing a timed distance in a Tesla is difficult because “there are a lot of variants,” such as the locations of the superchargers, elevation change, weather, and speed of the drive. Still, says Rammer, “the acceleration is staggering. It is faster than any car I have ever been in.”
When asked if they would do a Tesla road trip again, it was a unanimous yes. Will they? “Sure,” Rammer says. “If someone wants to give me another 48 hours with one.”