Roadtrip: the Tesla takes all Three Children to Canada

We recently completed our first real road trip in our Model X Pensive. We packed our three year old and twin one year old kids into the Model X 100D, range-charged to 100% and set-off west on I-90. We've taken trips to New York City and recently Maine, but never had we needed to schedule Supercharging into our trip before, and never before have we had the kids in the car for such a long trip. This was also the first trip out of the country for any of our children, but that's more of an afterthought in context of spending eight hours on the road.

Border Control

This was our first trip out of the country with our children. We dutifully filled-out the passport paperwork, took some pictures; and never submitted them to the Department of State to get travel papers since we were having some difficulty getting one of the kids to sit still long enough to get a valid picture.

Fortunately, Americans travelling to Canada by road don't need passports in certain situations. The relevant regulation is the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which is referenced on the Department of State's travel information page but not on Canada's page about minors visiting the country. Children under 16 years of age travelling with their parents only need a birth certificate.

If both parents on the certificate are not travelling with the child, you'll need additional paperwork (either a note from the missing parent(s) or documentation which would obviate need for their permission).

Cyclists at the border

Don't get in line behind cyclists, they'll take longer.

Travel

Theoretically, the Model X 100D has a 285 mi range, meaning that with a 100% state of charge, we only needed to charge one time along the way, when the batter got to about 25%. We were effectively taking Interstate-90 for the bulk of our trip, so I looked-up the potential superchargers. Once you get past Albany, there's a 95 mile no-man's land until you get to Utica, NY. Following that, there's roughly 30-mile hops to Syracuse, Waterloo, NY and then Victor, NY (near Rochester) before reaching Buffalo.

Massachusetts to Niagara Falls

Utica was nicely both within reach, but also far enough out that it meant that our destination would be reachable on a full charge. Syracuse and Waterloo would be reachable with a top-off in at the Lee Supercharger, but both of those were in poor locations: Waterloo's was in the parking lot of a casino1, while Syracuse was in a commercial/industrial park with nothing of interest nearby. Utica was within two miles of a zoo as well as a children's museum, which seemed like a reasonable place for the kids to stretch and get some exercise in the middle of the long trip.

The night before, we charged to 90% state-of-charge, woke-up early Saturday and set the car to charge the rest of the way to 100%, had breakfast, had the kids play a bit, pack everyone in and hit the road by 8am. We'd drive to Utica, I'd drop everyone else off at the Children's museum, drive back to the Supercharger, and walk back to the museum (which was estimated at a 33 minute walk, but seems like it should be closer to 20 min). When the car charged to 90%, I'd head back to the supercharger while it would continue to 100%, unplug and then come back to pick everyone-up at the museum.

Other Routes

Travelling through Utica only makes sense if you're close to I-90, coming from the East. That means most of New England and the New York capital district2. Once you start south of Newburgh, you're probably taking I-81 through Binghamton to Syracuse. If you're starting in Albany, Utica may be too close to make sense, so likewise, if you're west of the Lee Supercharger, this begins to less attractive as a stop.

Effecting the Plan

Surprisingly, at 8am, we were right on plan. We were all in the car and driving. The in-car trip planner alternated between routing to Niagara via Utica and via Lee and Syracuse. In the end, we set the destination as the Utica Supercharger itself and set-out.

Lee, Massachusetts

As we were approaching western Massachusetts, two elements conspired to alter the plan. My daughter's new stuffed toy had burst a seam, and the trip planner was estimating 5% charge at Utica–and dropping. We diverted as we passed through the Berkshires, stopping at the Lee Supercharger. The Superchargers are located at the Big Y supermarket. As my wife and daughter went in to get a sewing kit, the car charged, and I walked the boys around in the stroller for some fresh air.

The Lee supercharger is likely familiar to any Massachusetts driver, as it provides an obvious jump point for points west and both north and south along Interstate 87. In addition to the Tesla chargers along the road, there's also a two-port Chargepoint J1772 charger along the side of the store.

J1772 Charger

Non-Tesla EVs can also charge; although the posted time-limits are inconsistent.

Utica, New York

Utica is about 50 miles east of the Syracuse Supercharger, and 90-100 miles away from the Binghamton Supercharger in the south, Guilderland/Albany in the west, and Watertown in the north. It's closer to 140 miles from Ithica in the south west and the planned Lake Placid Supercharger to the north east. Utica makes an obvious stopping point for many trips through upstate New York west of Interstate 87.

Charging to about 97% got us to Utica fairly easily, and we would only require about 40 minutes of charging. We decided to get lunch while we charged at Utica and then head down to the children's museum so the kids could run around for a bit. The Superchargers are around the corner of a grocery store in case there's anything you neglected to get at the Lee Big Y. The first pair of chargers was broken, but half of the remaining six chargers were still open.

Utica Superchargers

Utica Superchargers in a strip mall

Broken supercharger

The first pair was broken, as helpfully noted by other drivers.

Gift Shop Coffee was closed3, but there was a restaurant right next door offering bar food called North End Pizza & Tap. There's a well known rule that pizza gets worse the farther away you get from New York City; decent pizza in Massachusetts his hard to find. It is about 240 miles from Manhattan to Utica, which is farther than any point in Massachusetts west of Buzzards Bay.

Waiting for lunch

Kids snacking on yoghurt melts while waiting for lunch.

Menu

Bathroom

Clean rest room, uncontaminated by any paper.

Wash hands!

Our boys mostly ate pouches, although they tried some of the pizza initially. The buffalo chicken wings weren't bad, but were a tad disappointing being that we were getting closer to Buffalo; they were well cooked but lacked flavour and acidity. The beer selection on tap was mundane, but like many bars in up-state New York did have Saranac, which is owned by Matt Brewing Company, and is located in Utica.

Crawling space Toddler walking Toy vehicles in the toddler area Kids Clinic

There's also a zoo nearby, but it wouldn't have given our one-year-olds the same opportunity to get some exercise. The museum is small, but served its purpose breaking-up the trip. The one-year-olds had full-run of the enclose play-space, while my daughter explored the rest of the museum.

Accessible ramp

Strollers could use the accessible ramp along the side

Train

Trains are a recurring theme.

Victor, New York

We'd only charged to 97%, and then lost a couple percentage off the battery while we were in the museum. Just as we saw at the start of our trip, the charge estimate was dropping and I was worried about either a potential delay at immigration or issues charging at our hotel. There was no line at immigration, as we got to drive right-up to an empty booth, but we would have some difficulties charging at the hotel, so the extra stop was well worth it in the end.

Victor, NY Superchargers Eastview Mall

Victor is an affluent suburb of Rochester, and the Superchargers were added to the Eastview Mall in 2017. There aren't a lot of options for food or things to do at the mall, but it does provide for a place to walk around and there are some options, such as a Bonefish Grill and a Starbucks in the middle of the mall. Another coffee option, with better food, would be The Village Bakery and Café4.

The Return

The trip out was surprisingly along the plan we set-out, from getting on the road at 8am to driving into the hotel garage at 7pm, despite a few changes in the details. It was a long drive though, and that wore on the children5. We looked to shorten the trip a little by reducing the charging stops, and taking two mixed stretch/food breaks rather than the longer mid-point stop and two shorter stretches we did on the way out.

We were leaving with only 70% charge, as the Niagara Sheraton only provided a 1.4kW trickle charge6, so we weren't going to make it close to Utica. Syracuse was a stretch (and wasn't suitable for the kids to get out and exercise), so we settled on again utilizing the Eastview Mall in Victor, NY. This wouldn't get us all the way to Lee, but we would be able to stop in the Albany area, where the Guilderland Superchargers were easily accessible to the Interstate and also offered a mall with facilities and floor space, as well as a pay play area and trampoline park for the kids to utilize. Alternatively, you can kill some time at Build a Bear, and with prices from $50-$70 for three animals7, you'd potentially be saving money compared to three toddlers and two adults at Billy Beezus (about $66).

Victor, New York

The Eastview Mall was expectedly less crowded on Wednesday morning, than it had been Saturday evening. We decided to pick-up some breakfast and coffee as the offering at the Sheraton in Niagara was not appetizing on either front; unfortunately most restaurants were not open that early mid-week. We walked to the Starbucks in the middle of the mall, but thought better of it, and found the Village Bakery and Café which had recently opened for the day. The Village Bakery has a variety of sandwiches, although I found it quickest to just order a build your own by choosing bread, cheese and meat. Unfortunately, their sausage was not yet ready, so I switched to the maple glazed bacon. The sandwich was good, but only remarkable in comparison to the food we'd been eating on our trip. They offered espresso in either double or quad shot sizes, but what I was served was poorly extracted and sour, so you might go better with a drip option.

Waiting

Waiting for our order to finish-up

Eating

Eating outside while we charged

It was a beautiful morning, and their were outside seats8, which worked great for the kids. Following breakfast, we commandeered an underused set of couches and tables which formed an acceptable corral for the boys to work-out some energy with crawling and walking.

Guilderland, New York

We skipped the entertainment spots—the zoo and children's museum—in Utica on our return. Our goal was to get to Albany, charge, and get out before rush hour slowed traffic to a crawl. This did lead to some protests leading to the exit from the one-year-olds which seemed to get louder as we passed Utica and headed onward. We did make it to the Crossgates mall outside of Albany, which had many, unused, charging stations and several restaurants were we intending to spend more time there (in particular, I was surprised to see a 110 Grill).

Directory

Looking-up stores in the mall directory.

We found that the best spot to have the kids walk around the mostly empty mall was the sitting area near where we came-in, much like we had done at Eastview mall. The mall advertises free WiFi, but from what I could tell, the only thing that worked was the landing page if you connected, where it requested a bunch of information for marketing purposes. Fortunately, several shops within the mall had their own open networks, while there was at least one Boingo partnered network available in the area where we were waiting. As I was having issues with my T-Mobile data-only SIM, the WiFi was helpful to track the status of the car's charging.

Kids in the mall

The kid chasing each other in a sparsely occupied area

Sitting area

We got to Albany with 12% charge, which opened the car to the maximum charging rate and an estimation of reaching 100% in 35 minutes. The effective charging rate slowed as the batteries held more energy, When we left after 47 minutes, the battery was only at 97% charge–the last 4% or so charges particularly slowly as the car tries to rebalance the cells within the battery.

Superchargers

Guilderland Superchargers

Tesla vs ICE

Autopilot

With straight roads, a surprising lack of construction, and sparse traffic, Autopilot worked well through most of the trip. AutoNavigation has come a long way since its release, and non-rush-hour driving meant it had predictable and ordered traffic. Compared to closer to the coast, there was more space between vehicles, and the car's lane-switching choices were more practical—nevertheless, I still had it set to require confirmation; and it still had its moment where it broke hard for an overpass's shadow, and another where it through-up its proverbial hands and returned control with sirens blazing.

On the subject of noise, I accidentally enabled the Rainbow Road Easter egg when the kids were sleeping and couldn't find a way to get it to be quiet or stop until I reset the MCU. The Easter egg doesn't respect mute or volume settings, and the audio continues until the end of the track, even if you disable AutoPilot.

Rainbow Road

Want to wake the babies? Accidentally pull the cruise control handle one too many times.

The end of the trip had some tighter traffic than the early and middle stretches. Unfortunately, focusing on avoiding traffic as we left Victor, NY meant that we had two strikes against our Autopilot 8 minutes into our 98 minute last leg. Within ten minutes I'd missed the warning again, since the warning has nothing to do with actually having your hands on the wheel, meaning almost all of our last leg was done with manual driving. Cruise control without Autopilot is particularly disorienting in a Model X when you're used to the semi-autonomous functionality.

Take over

Range

The last leg of the trip I spent reflecting on the experience of taking a (Tesla) electric vehicle on a road trip compared to how it might have been different with gas-powered internal combustion engine. Modern cars, such as fuel efficient sedans9 or SUVs with large gas tanks, would be able to make the trip to the hotel without stopping, and enough fuel in reserve to make it back for a quick stop at a service station along I-90. This would have potentially meant getting to Niagara three hours earlier, when check-in opened, and putting us in a good position to get the kids to bed at their normal time.

However, the hardest part on the trip for the kids, at least until dinner time, was sitting in the car for long stretches. Now that the youngest are starting to walk and otherwise like crawling and exploring, being strapped into a car for more than ninety minutes starts to become frustrating. A fifty minute stop was roughly spent with 10 minutes of unloading and getting into the mall; 30 minutes of playing, changing babies, or eating; and then 10 minutes of getting everyone back into the car. Were everyone older, loading/unloading would have been quicker, and be more patient on the long ride (or occupied with electronics, perhaps).

My old Impreza only got about 260 miles to the tank, while our Volvo XC70 gets a bit more than that. Each of these would have needed a stop on both the way out and way back. Again, we could have stopped at highway service stations which would have been the most expedient, but that would not have given us anywhere reasonable for the one-year-olds to stretch. It would also have been more awkward to unload the car while refuelling as fuel pumps tend to have more traffic moving around.

Nikola Tesla statue

Nikola Tesla statue overlooking the falls in Niagara, Ontario

The new Model X has an improved drive train and can go 14% further (325 miles vs 285 miles; or closer to 262 miles based on how my Model X, Pensive behaved on this trip). This would certainly help ease concerns when the car estimates arriving with 5% charge on the battery, and would provide range equivalent to many vehicles currently on the road. For family trips, especially with the younger children, an EV with Tesla's supercharging network is a workable solution.

Gas station

Even 24H gas stations, like this one in Connecticut, close.


  1. although the satellite maps still showed an empty lot

  2. Albany area

  3. principally a tchotchke shop, although with coffee for sale

  4. which oddly lists itself as Plattsburg Bakery in credit card transactions

  5. as well as the adults, for that matter

  6. which we were generously able to utilize the night before leaving without paying the $40 CAD fee

  7. actually $40-$50 with discounts

  8. the seating inside is very limited and reserved for mobility impaired customers

  9. The Audi we got in San Francisco for our Nappa trip didn't need a fuel stop other than to top-off before being returned.