Sunday, November 5, 2023

How to rent a car and not pay for gas

 I’m a truck guy, but I admit to being electric-vehicle curious. So it was that when I had to go to Dallas for a week of training recently that I decided to rent a Tesla and see how the other half lived. After all, I reasoned, the price of a Tesla rental was almost the same as an equivalent gas burner, and I’d probably save my company money in the long run by not paying for gas. It was a win-win! I’d be crazy not to do it. 

This wasn’t my first experience with a Tesla. I had driven one once before as a courtesy vehicle from a private airport terminal that we visited on another work trip. One of my friends is also a Tesla owner and he gave me some insight before the rental. Even without this experience, I would not have gone into the rental cold. Hertz sent a series of emails with links to Tesla tutorials in the weeks prior to my rental. 

Me and my Tesla and a supercharger (David Thornton)

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And it’s a good thing they did. If you walked up to a Tesla with no prior knowledge, you probably wouldn’t even be able to get inside. There is no key or fob and no obvious door handle. Instead, the driver gets a key card that you hold up to the door to open the locks. The key card is also used to start the car. Just place it on the console and put it in gear. There is no “ignition” button. 

Door handles are also atypical from most cars. Instead of putting your hand through the handle, you push the handle in, which pushes the opposite end out so that you can grab it. 

Beyond those changes, however, driving a Tesla, the Model 3 in my case, is pretty straightforward. Shifting is done with a control on the column called a “stalk,” but it uses familiar modes such as “drive” and “reverse.” The “stalk” is similar to a turn signal or wiper lever on traditional cars. 

The most noticeable difference comes when you take your foot off the “gas” pedal. In traditional cars, the vehicle coasts freely with your foot off the accelerator. Not so in a Tesla. Taking your foot off the accelerator feels like putting on the brakes. 

The reason for the difference is that the Tesla uses regenerative braking. Essentially, this is the process of recapturing the car’s kinetic energy to help recharge the battery by trading some of the coasting speed for battery charging. You quickly get used to keeping a little pressure on the pedal to slow gradually, but like many things in the Tesla, this feature can be adjusted in the settings. (The brake light does come on when regenerative braking is in use.)

One of the first things that you notice about the Tesla is how clean and utilitarian the front panel is. The dashboard is dominated by a large screen through which both navigation and car settings are accessed. One of the features is that different braking modes can be selected, including one that mimics traditional cars. There are no traditional round dials for the speedometer or engine gauges. 

This screen, which I’ll call a multi-function display (MFD) as in aviation parlance, also lets you navigate, select entertainment, and control everything from windshield wipers to heated seats. There’s also a microphone icon that allows you to use voice controls. It takes a little bit to get familiar with the layout so I recommend exploring the controls before hitting the road. I’d make the same recommendation for most gas-powered rental cars as well since computer interfaces and placement of items like wipers and lights are not standard on any rental car. 

The Tesla cockpit including MFD, map, and turn signal cam. The light red brick building is the Texas School Book Depository. (David Thornton)

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As I said earlier, the car is started by placing the key card on the console. Just do that, put it in gear and you’re off. Just as there is no ignition switch for starting you also don’t have to shut it down. Just put it in park, get out, lock it with the key card, and walk away. One of the key points that Hertz warned me about was that if you leave the key card in the car, anyone can drive it away. They recommend you don’t do that. 

After a couple of drives, I noticed a QR code on the screen. Scanning that code allowed me to use the Tesla app to control some aspects of the car from my phone. I could check that it was locked from my hotel room, monitor the battery charge, and even start (in the sense of preheating the battery to get it ready) it remotely. 

The Tesla has big windows that give very good visibility. One feature that I really liked was a skylight made of clear, tinted glass in the roof. (I’m going to call it a “skylight” rather than a “sunroof” because, as far as I could tell, it didn’t open.) It’s really neat to drive through a downtown area and look up to see the high rises. The tint keeps the car from getting too warm through the skylight, which is a concern for me along with the additional solar exposure. 

Another of my favorite features was the turn signal cam. When you use the turn signals (you DO use your turn signals, don’t you?) a blind spot camera view is depicted on the MFD. This works better for right turns since I habitually look to the right to change lanes to the right, but I quickly got in the habit of scanning the MFD and then looking left for lane changes to the left. 

There were other cool features as well. The MFD would show surrounding vehicles and obstacles in pretty good detail. You could distinguish semi trucks from cars and the screen even depicted orange traffic cones. It also monitored traffic lights and would chirp when the light turned green. 

I didn’t try the self-driving feature, but the cruise control worked well. The car also monitored speed limit signs and would automatically adjust the cruise speed with speed limit changes. The preference can be set relative to the speed limit (for example, you can set it to cruise at 5 miles per hour faster than the limit). The feature can be good for ticket avoidance, and with its fast acceleration and good handling, tickets could be a problem if you aren’t careful. 

There are also things you might not think about. For example, the absence of an engine up front allows extra storage space. A “frunk” under the front hood gives almost as much storage room as the trunk in the rear. 

One of my big anxieties was range. Without having had much firsthand experience with EVs, I wasn’t sure how quickly the battery would be depleted. I was pleasantly surprised. 

I did most of my driving in town with short stretches of interstate travel (if you know Dallas, you’re probably familiar with navigation there). I found that about 20 minutes of driving equated to about five percentage points on the battery. Simple math tells us that would equate to about 400 minutes of driving time to fully drain the battery. I never let it get anywhere near that low. 

I did experiment with a couple of different charging methods. The Tesla navigation system can direct you to nearby chargers, of which Tesla has two different types. Every time I checked, I was within about five miles of a charger, but that was inside the big city. There are also third-party chargers, which I didn’t use. 

A Tesla destination charger is a free charger. These are often located at hotels and shopping centers. Unfortunately, my hotel and the training center that I was attending didn’t have one. If they had, I could have just let the Tesla charge either overnight or during class and I’d probably never have had to do anything else. When navigating to a charger, the car will even condition the battery for rapid charging. 

Some of the hosts of destination chargers won’t let you use them if you aren’t a customer, but the navigation display won’t tell you this, so charger beware. If you aren’t familiar with a destination charger, it may pay to do a little more research and make a phone call before you depend on it. 

I did make use of a couple of destination chargers. A couple of times, I charged the car to get a partial charge. My rule of thumb was that it took about 90 minutes to add about 10 percentage points to the charge. I often tied this to time spent in restaurants, shopping, or sightseeing. 

But wait, it gets better. Tesla superchargers are much quicker. I found a bank of 12 superchargers near my hotel and used it a couple of times. The supercharger took the car from 50 percent, about the lowest I let it get, to 100 percent in about 35 minutes. 

Admittedly, this isn’t as quick as filling up a traditional car with a tank of gas (and gas stations are easier to find), but it’s not terribly inconvenient either. There were several restaurants around so I usually combined my supercharger time with a meal stop. The app notifies you when it’s fully charged, but don’t dawdle because there are idle fees after five minutes. 

I was supposed to return the car with a 95 percent charge so my strategy was to top the battery the night before and then hit the supercharger again on the way to return the car. Again, more inconvenient than a gas burner, but then again, my “fuel” bill was about $11 for several hundred miles of city driving. If you’re the sort of psychopath who schedules airline flights for 6 a.m., it would require a very early start to recharge first and then return the car in time to make your flight. 

Charging is an easy process, by the way. Just pull up to a charger, click the charge port on the MFD or the app to open it, and plug in the charger. Electricity starts flowing, and the car will estimate how long to a full charge. You can set up a credit card in the Tesla app so there is no need to swipe a card at the charger. 

At one point, I did get a bad charger. The car wasn’t charging after I plugged it in. I noticed the light was red on the charge port, and the screen was showing only five amps. The car also told me on the screen that it wasn’t charging. This was at the bank of 12 superchargers so I simply moved to the next slot, and voila! got a good charge. 

The view of Dallas looking up through the Tesla skylight (David Thornton)

I did find a few faults with the Tesla. One of the most noticeable was the low overhead. I’m somewhat tall and, if I had my sunglasses on top of my head, I’d often bump them getting in and out. A few more inches of headroom would be nice.

I’m also not a fan of Tesla’s proprietary navigation system. I like in-car navigation, particularly when it’s built around Apple CarPlay, and I wish Tesla had gone in this direction. Rather than reinventing the wheel, they should integrate CarPlay so that drivers could use Google Maps or Waze (I’m not even going to imply that anyone tech-savvy enough to be in a Tesla would want to use Apple Maps.) There may be a way around this issue, but I didn’t explore the possibility. 

An additional problem is charge ports for personal devices inside. There is a Qi wireless charging pad for two phones for front-seat occupants, but this is not convenient if you want to use your phone while charging. The front seats do not have a USB port at all, but there are two type-C connectors for rear-seat occupants. Naturally, I didn’t have a type-C cord and my phone case wasn’t compatible with Qi charging pads. 

One of the most troublesome aspects of the Tesla is that the battery can drain while the car is parked. On a bright, sunny day with temperatures in the mid-80s, I came back from class to find the battery level lower than I left it by about 10 percentage points. I thought I had left something on that was draining the battery but my Tesla-owner friend said that it was the car’s thermal management system, which diverts power to heat or cool the battery. 

The battery drain is something that a Tesla owner can plan for and do things to mitigate, but it can be annoying. I’ve long said that, in the South, the best parking spots aren’t the ones near the door but the ones in the shade. That’s doubly true with a Tesla. 

At the end of the week, I did enjoy my time in the Tesla, but I wasn’t sorry to return it either. While it worked well for an in-town runabout, it wouldn’t be ideal for the longer-range driving that I frequently do. Leaving it parked outside in extreme temperatures while I’m on multiday trips would also make me uneasy. 

Electric vehicles are great for certain missions, but they don’t work so well for others. If most of your driving is short-range, around-town trips, then an EV might be a good fit. That’s especially true if you have a house where you can garage the EV indoors, shielding it from large temperature swings, and can install your own charger. 

I’m not sure how convenient they would be for apartment dwellers. Even if the complex has its own chargers, there might be competition for space and there might be significant battery drain on very cold nights with the EV parked outside. 

After a week as a Tesla driver, I’m not ready to permanently join the ranks of EV drivers, but I can see a day when I probably will. As range increases, charge time decreases, and charging stations proliferate, the technology will become more attractive. 

And every time I put $50 worth of gas in my truck, I’ll be thinking about driving around all week in a Tesla for $11.

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CYBER TRUCK: You may be thinking, “Dave, you’re a truck guy. What about the Cyber Truck?”

I haven’t driven one, but I would like to point out that Tesla tested the Cyber Truck for bullet resistance by firing at it with a “Tommy gun.” You can see the results here. If that weren’t enough, they followed up by testing the Cyber Truck against a bow and arrow attack. I’m not sure why. 

It does, however, remind me of an old joke about older cars: My car is so old it’s insured against collision, theft, and Indian raids!

I haven’t driven the Cyber Truck, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s a good EV for the Apocalypse or traveling back to the Old West a la “Back to the Future.” It even sort of looks like a Delorean. 

The only question is whether the Apocalypse and the Old West would have chargers.

From the Racket News

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