I’m behind the wheel of a Tesla Model 3, trailing a slow semi truck through deep forest up some sweet, curvy two-lane blacktop. A short passing lane opens up, so I shoulder check, and press the accelerator. The absence of engine noise just makes the g-forces feel that much more intense as we effortlessly pass into open road with lane to spare. As my adrenaline levels and speed (and stupid grin) subside, I glance down at the huge touch screen and realize I’ve just burned several kilometers of valuable range with that move. This may make a difference, as the boys and I are on our way to the end of the road on Vancouver Island’s rugged west coast.
The 3 Amigos Plug In
Renting the Tesla was my idea. As the self-acknowledged ‘green hippie’ of our little tribe, I love the electric car concept, and want to see how practical a highway road trip would be. My companions bring other goals to the expedition. ‘J’ is a 6’2” adventure aficionado from T.O., keen to experience it all with an alternative music soundtrack. ‘G’ is a more compact Italian sport driver type from Niagara, who shares pilot duties on the Tesla and brings an infectious enthusiasm for all things British Columbian. Our original plan to travel to BC’s interior was scrubbed by the worst forest fire season on record, leaving us to scramble a trip to Vancouver Island instead. Could our rented Model 3 haul all of our gear, supplies and attitudes across The Rock and back without going dark?
Zerocar – a rental agency powered for the future
Renting a Tesla in Vancouver turns out to be fairly straightforward. Zerocar is North America’s only Tesla-exclusive rental agency, and their website operates very efficiently to show me which Teslas are available for our dates and what the costs will be. I could have had the car delivered for an extra fee, but decided to visit Zerocar in their East Richmond location and talk to President Jason Gagne myself to find out more.
“We have a lot of customers renting a Tesla because they are interested in buying one and want to see if it’s right for them,” Jason says, “We also get people renting them for special occasions like weddings or birthdays. Sometimes it’s just to show their kids that this is what the future is going to be.”
Zerocar started as EV Rentals in 2017, but rebranded once they shifted to a Tesla-only fleet. They now offer 30 Teslas, ranging from the high-end Model S and Model X to various versions of the more reasonably priced Model 3 and Model Y.
“We are now Canada’s largest e-car rental service,” Jason continues, “We have 20 more Teslas on order, and plans for 60-70 cars by the end of the year.”
His plans don’t stop there. Zerocar intends to launch e-car sharing in downtown Vancouver and ultimately offer a peer-to-peer portal for Tesla owners to be able to monetize their rides.
The brand, like the cars, is clean and modern. My rental experience was efficient, and communication clear, although I think they underestimate just how awesome this experience is for a Tesla newbie. (A fun ‘welcome’ video would definitely be a possibility!)
Jason gave us a once-through on the immense touch screen, which controls everything in the Tesla –even the glove box release. I must say I felt a little overwhelmed at the start, (wait, which tab has the AC fan adjustment again?) but with 385 kilometers of range to play with, G and I hit the open road, floating in the gleaming white interior of this futuristic shuttle.
Charging across Vancouver Island
From the upper deck of the BC Ferry, G and I watch coho salmon leap above the sparkling waters of the Salish Sea. Docking in Swartz Bay, we electro-motor down bucolic country roads to pick up J from his friends’ island country home in Saanichton. Of course I have to take one of his friends for a test drive and cannot resist demonstrating the Tesla’s startling acceleration. There goes another 10k of range… oops.
Our next goal is the Sproat Lake waterfront cabin of N and J, who have agreed to put us up for a night or two–a distance of about 240 kilometers. Our range is still over 300, but the navigation screen shows a Tesla Supercharger station in Nanaimo, right along our route, so we elect to stop there and top up.
The winding Island Highway takes us over the Malahat pass as J sprawls over the back seats, looking up through the full-glass roof of the Tesla. The highway serves up a buffet of vistas, from an eagle’s view of the Finlayson Arm to roadside Canadiana that tells the tale of a logging and fishing economy in transition to the new world of real estate development, Amazon and Walmart.
Once you plug the Tesla in to a charger the screen immediately tells you how long it will take to achieve full charge and the rate of kilometers being added per hour. A Tesla Supercharger is absolutely the fastest way to get power, with the ability to almost fully charge the car in about an hour. So we use this time wisely to do our liquor shopping. (When heading to freeload at someone’s cabin, bringing a good bottle of scotch is never a bad idea) At the charging station we see a number of other Tesla owners, but there is no sense of camaraderie. Each are sequestered in their futuristic air conditioned pods. One couple is watching a movie on their screen (yes, free streaming Netflix and music is included with your Zerocar rental.) It’s like the Jetsons meets Lost in Space.
From the Cabin to the Coast… and back?
Arriving at the end of a tightly forested driveway on the shores of Sproat Lake, our Tesla’s automatic lights illuminate… another Tesla! To my surprise, N has joined the ranks of the electrified, so we don’t even have to dig out our charging cable to plug in. It’s only a 110v connection though, so it adds just 7 or 8km per hour. But that will be plenty to get us to tomorrow’s destination as we still have over 200km of range showing on the screen. (It would have been more, but G was driving up and over the Port Alberni Summit, and overtaking at Tesla speed is his favourite new pastime.)
We awake the next day, only slightly foggy from an evening of scotch tasting and guitar jamming. Today’s destination is Tofino–a spectacular tourist town on the edge of Pacific Rim National Park, where waves born in Japan crash on beaches that stretch into infinity. It’s a 111km trip each way, but we now have over 280km of range again, so we hit the winding road once more. This time we also hit road construction and a one hour delay–out of cell range. Suddenly the Tesla’s streaming entertainment system streams to a halt, and I find myself wishing a box of dusty cassette tapes was rattling around under the driver’s seat. Fortunately, the Tesla’s brain also has a lobe called Toybox, which offers classic games (Asteroids, anyone?) puzzles and tutorials. But the most fun we have is with an application that generates fart noises and uses the car’s eight speakers to make them sound like they are coming from various passengers in the car. It can also make flatulence the default sound for the car’s horn. So as we wait behind a long line of other tourists, we fart in their general direction. It appears boys will be boys, whether on a road trip or engineering a next-generation electric car.
Perspective from the Edge
It’s a thoughtful experience to drive until you can drive no further. We park the Tesla at the end of the road and consider the sapphire waters of the Pacific before exploring the town. Keeping G fueled with coffee is almost as constant a task as keeping the car charged with juice. The Maq Hotel has a freshly renovated coffee shop that features a larger-than-life-sized fluorescent orange grizzly bear sculpture, walking through a planted green wall. This is definitely ‘New Tofino’, with its combination of historic artifacts, art photography and modern sculpture. The huge glowing bear is a suitable allegory for our journey in this vehicle that is at once brazen and new, yet represents our attempt to coexist with nature
Long Beach is worth every bit of the traffic and waiting. A constant wind makes our frisbee game a challenge, and at one point J decides to see how far one of my errant throws will roll as the breeze carries it down the sand. As we lose sight of him walking this orange disc over a kilometer into the distance, G and I decide to brave the chill Pacific to play like kids in the waves. “Once the numbing stops, it’s not too bad!” G says, as we wade further into the froth. The pull of the riptide is sobering as the waves rush back under each other, but the draw of the sparkling surf is irresistible.
Returning to our rocketship, covered with sand and sunscreen, I begin to wonder at the wisdom of a rented car with a pristine white interior. We dust off as best we can and use our towels to protect the surfaces. Returning to N’s cabin we plug in once more with over 70km of range remaining.
Range Anxiety – is it really a thing? No… (and yes.)
The next day begins with stand-up paddling and kayaking across the Taylor Arm of Sproat Lake for some cliff jumping. As we plunge into the lake’s clear waters, evidence of a huge forest fire just above us reminds us just how real and immediate the climate change crisis is. All of the horsepower in the world won’t outrun the coming heat. But maybe we can adapt and still share the road in a new and better way.
Driving from Sproat Lake to visit D & L’s Musical Acreage in Comox will take 129km of range. The Plugshare app on my phone shows a decent scattering of chargers in Qualicum Beach, a quaint coastal town perfectly placed for our lunch break. But as we circle this picturesque little burg, it appears other electrically-powered holidayers have had the same idea. Charger after charger is full to the brim with Kias, Bolts, Volts and other Teslas.
As G navigates us to each unavailable charger, my anxiety increases, not so much in fear of running out of power, but rather that the e-car naysayers may be right; the electric transportation revolution will devolve into hours of waiting in charger lines and fist fights over available CHAdeMO plugs. Fortunately, at the last charger on our list, we are saved by the Qualicum Beach Town Hall where they offer free ChargePoint plugs in their underground lot, with 4 wide open stalls. Our e-anxiety lasted all of about 14 minutes, quickly replaced by a feeling I call Smug Chargifaction; that comfort that comes from knowing your car is getting free volts while you are enjoying a delicious Teriyaki Chicken Caesar salad at a local bistro.
Taking Electrification Further
At D & L’s Musical Acreage, I plugged in to the outlet right by the front door. Here it is easy to just hang out; feasting on garden-fresh food and playing tunes under moonlight long into the night, or biking to nearby Kye Bay to play frisbee in the shallow warm waters of this inland sea, as kilometers trickle into the Tesla’s tank.
But G is now focused on one thing besides coffee; fishing for west coast salmon. So we soon find ourselves in a sturdy aluminum boat watching rods twitch as our guide navigates the sea floor 260 feet below. I ponder the electrification of the sea; could his powerful Yamaha 200 outboard be replaced with an electric battery motor for these 5-hour tours? Gazing out to the distant islands and mountains on the horizon, it seems impractical. How much difference does could one boat make in all this space, anyway? G jumps to reel in a 20lb salmon, one of two his license lets him keep for the day. The dwindling numbers of these magnificent fish remind me that the next great human journey–finding out how to live within the planet’s means–will take every action possible at every level.
Charger Karma and Golfing in Sechelt
We elect to return to Metro Vancouver via the Sunshine Coast. A circuitous route that takes three ferries to traverse a series of steep fjords and impossibly green islands and peninsulas. Here, distance is no issue–Vancouver is only about 120km of driving distance away–but now the charging game is part of the sport of it all, and plug-in availability starts to become a real factor in where we decide to eat, stay or adventure.
J is looking for a golf game on this trip, and finds us a last-minute booking (is there any other kind?) at Sechelt’s Blue Ocean Golf Club. There is a charger nearby, but with the average golf game taking 4+ hours, I am concerned that I would be ‘That Guy’ who leaves his Tesla plugged in all day when someone else really needs the amps. So we stay unplugged and play our round, with rented clubs. (For three big guys packing golf bags AND a guitar, even Model 3’s generous storage would not suffice)
Here, climate change is evident once again. Stage 4 water restrictions have left brown rough curving around water hazards drained of their water. J wanders into these new mud flats and scores us handfuls of dusty golf balls, which we dutifully lose on the narrow fairways of the back 9. But the greens are well maintained, and the laughs of friends reunited outweigh any climate heaviness.
Heading home on Autopilot.
We are now on the tail end of our journey, stopping to recharge both the car and ourselves at the picturesque seaside hamlet of Gibsons, BC, home of the iconic CBC series, The Beachcombers. After a tasty local brew at Granny’s Pub, we wander the steep streets, eyeing oceanview cottages enviously. Vancouver is now just one ferry ride away, and all too soon we return to Horseshoe Bay on the final leg of the trip.
Here I try one last Tesla experiment, engaging the Autopilot on the Upper Levels highway. I find it hard to give over control, but soon the car is steering itself and staying aback of the cars in front. I hover over the wheel like an anxious mother bird, and from time to time the screen asks me to provide ‘gentle steering input’, just to make sure I am paying attention. This is actually more stressful to me than the driving itself, so I abandon the effort and exit for downtown. I get the idea of autonomous transportation, but would have to invest a lot more time engaged with it before it became a practical alternative for me.
The dream is over. Or is it?
Returning the Tesla is all bitter and no sweet. Jason gives the car a once-over and shakes my hand. So that’s it. I am now back among the petro-tribe.
I hope there is some email follow-up to keep me engaged. I would love to be part of a Zerocar rental club and would happily sign up for email updates if that option was offered. And that’s a rare feeling for a jaded old marketing guy like me.
In total, we drove about 1000 kilometers on this trip, and with Zerocar’s generous daily allowance of 225 free k, we were well within our allotted range. In total, estimating that the average rental car would get 10L/100km (for easy math) we saved about $170 on gas. Between free chargers and mooching off of the power of friends, I spent about $5 on electricity.
But the things I will really miss about e-motoring are all experiential; the thrill of instant acceleration; the efficiency of one-pedal driving, where simply lifting your right foot brakes the car with regenerative force; and that feeling of road trip freedom without the nagging guilt of leaving behind a trail of CO2. (Not to mention the quirky storage in the ‘frunk’ where a car’s engine would normally be–and where it’s easy to forget stuff for the rental company to find later)
But I now know that for me, missing those things will be temporary. For I have seen the future of road trips. And I’m all plugged in for it.
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