Driving a Tesla, or any EV is pretty much like driving the gasoline-powered cars you are used to, with a couple of exceptions related to how the car behaves and re-fueling (charging), which I will cover here.
Before you Drive
One of the defining features of EVs is something called regenerative braking or regen for short. In a typical car, when you take your foot off the gas the car coasts along and slowly loses speed. Most EVs do something a bit different. When you press the accelerator, the battery sends electricity to the motors, which turn the wheels. When you let off the accelerator, the process reverses: the spinning wheels now turn shaft of the motor, turning it into a dynamo, which charges the battery. Most EVs will graphically depict this in some manner to let the driver know what is going on. The example below is from a Tesla Model X, where the orange arc shows you are drawing power from the battery and the green arc means you are charging the battery. The newer Teslas have a horizontal bar on the display or instrument cluster that moves to the right to show energy usage or to the left for regeneration.
This action is called regenerative braking because it causes the car to slow down more quickly–as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator, the car will begin to slow. The behavior can seem strange at first (so now you have been warned) but most drivers quickly adapt. Some cars have vary levels of regeneration, so the driver can control how pronounced the effect is–on older Teslas there were two levels of regeneration, but on current models, it is no longer controllable.
One of the benefits of regeneration is “one-foot driving.” Most drivers get adept at controlling vehicle speed simply by using the accelerator to speed up and using regen to slow down without ever touching the brakes. It’s a simpler way to drive and you will find your brakes lasting a lot longer.
There are a couple of caveats to remember with regen:
- If you have charged your battery to 100%, regen may be temporarily limited because there is no place for the generated electricity to go. The result is the car the car may not slow down as quickly you you might expect. Check your owners manual to see how it notify you of limited regen. On newer Teslas, a dashed line will appear on the energy bar. On older Teslas, limited regent will be indicated in the energy app.
- On cold mornings, regeneration may also be temporarily limited until the battery pack has had a chance to warm up. The car will indicate limited regen in the same manner as listed above.
- If you are driving in snowy, slippery road conditions, some owners find temporarily setting regen to low gives them more predictable handling (if the car offers the option)
Even if you are not usually a lead foot, it is fun to occasionally let the car run free. There are a couple of things to bear in mind:
- You may not fully appreciate how quickly you can get going and the electric drive lacks the usual cues, so be careful you don’t end up testing the understand of your local police. :). There were a few times early on when I went to blip the accelerator to ease past someone and found myself slingshotting past them instead.
- Between the jackrabbit acceleration and the regeneration you can actually kinda make your passengers seasick, so practice transitioning smoothly from speeding up to slowing down. Outside of happier passengers, this will help you improve you overall driving efficiency and range. You can use the energy app as a visual reminder of this.
EV transmissions are simple and Tesla is no exception. Typically you have drive, reverse and park (which are self-explanatory). EVs can behave differently when not pressing the accelerator. Some EVs will free roll, while others will automatically engage the brakes when not moving, so check the owners manual. Older Tesla would free-roll when not pressing the accelerator, while newer cars will engage a hold mode when not pressing the accelerator.
Charging can seem daunting because its new and different and electricity can certainly seem a bit scary. But, as you will see, it will quickly become second nature.
A Quick Word About Safety
An electric car charger is properly termed Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment, or EVSE (you know an engineer had a hand in naming that). The reason for the fancy name is that your charging cable is more than just a big fancy extension cord. The biggest difference is that the exposed end of an extension cord is energized as soon as you plug it in. All EVSEs are designed to not energize the charging handle until it is plugged into the car and the EVSE has determined the connection is working properly.
If you look at the end of the Tesla plug, you will see two big pins, one medium pin and two small pins. When you plug you charger into your car, the car and the charger use these two small pins to communicate with each other using low voltage signals. The two big high voltage pins are only energized once the car and the charger have established a connection, exchanged information about each others capabilities and decided everything is cool. While there are a number of different EV charging standards out there, they all follow a similar approach to electrical safety. As long the charging gear is not physically damaged, it is perfectly safe to charge in the rain, etc. If you do see physical damage to the equipment, cable or handle, if its a built charger, three should be an 800 support number on the charger–call the company and let them know. If the damage is on your charger at home, flip the appropriate breaker off and call the manufacturer and/or whoever installed the gear for you.
How to Charge
Charging is going to seem very similar to pumping gas at a self-serve pump, but it is still covering the steps:
- Pull up or back up to the charger–your charge port is on the driver’s side in the back. If you are pulling into a Tesla Supercharger location and all the stalls are full, look for other Teslas lined up somewhere or if there if no one else, start you own line. Note that some busy locations will have a valet that will guide you and do traffic management.
- Pop open the charge port–depending on the vehicle you have this can by done from the main display, by pressing on the charge port door, or double-clicking the “trunk” on the key fob
- Depending on where you are charging, you might need to swipe a credit card or other membership card to activate the charger–one of the other chapters deals with charging options on while on the road
- Push the charger handle into the charge port until you hear a click and charge port light turns green. If the light turns yellow or red, you might not have pushed the charging handle in far enough or the charger and the car might have problem communicating. You can try moving to another charger or if there is a support number on the charger, call them–often they can diagnose and fix problems remotely
- Depending on where you are charging you might also need to use an adapter–see this chapter
- Watch the electrons flow into your battery. At this point, the charger handle is locked into your car, so you can lock the car and go grab some coffee, etc.
- When you are ready to leave, stop charging by pressing the stop charging button on the main display or pressing the button/trigger on the charging handle (exact location will vary). You will hear a clunk, which is the car releasing the charger handle.
- Pull the charging handle out and hang it back up on the charger and put away any adapters you might have used.
- Close the charger cover if you don’t have a auto-closing cover and get back on the road.
Next I would suggest reading Charging at Home and Charging on the Road to get more detail on the charging options you may encounter. Really, the best thing you can do is go out and drive. Outside of being fun, the more practice you get, the quicker these skills will become second nature.
Sharing the Road
EVs are especially quiet, so be careful around pedestrians and bicyclists as they may not be able to hear you, especially at low speeds in areas such as driveways, residential streets and parking lots. At higher speeds, tire noise, wind noise, etc start to kick in and its less of an issue.