Previously for Civilian, I motored around Vienna in a hybrid petrol/electric car whose inventor pointed out that long journeys still require a conventional engine due to limited battery power.
“What would happen if you wanted to go to John O’Groats?” he asked, laughing.
Well, I like a challenge…
At 120 mph, the Tesla has the decibel level of a vibrating phone
You join me as we head north along the main arterial highway through the Scottish Highlands, the A9, towards John O’Groats. Very soon, I’ll be 700 miles from London, as far away as it’s possible to go on the British mainland. We’re doing 50 miles an hour, which is frustrating. Not because the all-electric four wheel drive Tesla X is sluggish. It has the same acceleration as a Ferrari (0-60mph in 2.9 seconds), and the power of the electric drive is so astonishing it’s difficult to rein in (top speed 155mph). But there are traffic restrictions, strictly enforced.
Fast driving has been traditionally accompanied by the roar of a V8 engine, the scream of a double exhaust. At 120 mph, the Tesla has the decibel level of a vibrating phone.
For the first half of the journey, streaking along England’s motorways M1 and M6, I sped past everything on the road. Call me Mr Smug: no damage to the environment, whisperingly quiet, and of course zero petrol costs. The whole journey, some 1500 miles, would cost precisely zilch*.
Recharging the battery on those motorways is as simple as plugging in a kettle. Tesla have their own network of superchargers fanning out from London which you plug into for about 40 minutes or so, enough time to check emails over a coffee or enjoy the stench of motorway service station loos. (This excludes the rather marvellous Tebay, which has its own farm shop). A full charge lasts about 200 miles or so.
There are currently 76 of these charging sites, the furthest north being at Aviemore, a concrete ski resort come conference centre of quite exceptional ugliness despite the surroundings of dramatic highland scenery. Still, you get a free coffee while waiting. It’s after Aviemore that things get interesting.
“What happens if I run out of juice?” I had asked a Tesla person.
Now, to be fair, most people driving electric cars fully charge them at home, they’re not roaming around barren landscapes looking for a plug. In my case, my home was my castle, also featured previously on Civilian, Ackergill Tower near Wick – on the market, as I write, for just under £4mn. You still really can have your own Scottish Castle.
As I tucked into rib of beef in the most Highland dining room you’ve ever seen (dark wood panelling, inglenook fireplace, clan banners, candlelit nooks and crannies), the car was trickle-charging downstairs, courtesy of a wall socket and cable dangling out the kitchen window. Thankfully, chef didn’t require all the sockets for service, as this process takes several hours, as opposed to a 40-minute motorway supercharge.
The following sunlit morning, with battery half charged, I streaked silently across the deep purple moors of the Caithness wilderness, frightening the wildlife and startling the natives. The North Sea glinted, the roads were utterly deserted. Quite the most fabulous drive. The Tesla X, marketed as an ‘SUV’, is more minibus inside, with three rows of seating, but even while flashing around the tightest of curves, it handles stoically, mostly thanks to permanent 4 wheel drive.
At John O’Groats itself, a tiny windswept tourist trap recently enhanced by bright new eco-cabins, there is an “Ecotricity” charger. I plugged in without any problem. (Unbeknownst to me there were three types of charge and I had selected the slowest. I soon learned). The car’s computer told me I’d be there till doomsday, being battered by winds, accosted by Dutch tourists demanding selfies, and applauding exhausted, sweaty, charity cyclists from Land’s End. I left after three sips of bad coffee and the arrival of a coachload of grannies.
Drifting along the roof of Britain, through tiny hamlets and past the retro atomic glamour of Britain’s first, and now redundant, nuclear power station at Dounreay I found a charger on the ZapMap (from a total of 6667 UK locations): 3 miles off road on a windswept headland jutting out into the sea at some isolated B&B. The track was bumpy, the sheep curious.
The owner was out.
I stopped to consider my options, yards from an agitated sea, whipped into permanent frenzy by the same stormy weather that drives the wind turbine farms strung along this coast. Inside, comfortable and warm, I checked the large screen that dominates all Tesla dashboards: navigation, vehicle controls, YouTube, emails, and Google, which told me that Mr Elon Musk, the inventor of Tesla, was in the news again. Insulting a British diver in Thailand, offering a Japanese billionaire a trip to the moon, smoking dope live on radio, making noise about taking the company private; generally not acting as most heads of car corporations do. And so, subsequently, he has vacated the chairman’s chair (but staying on as CEO).
The journey back to London was drama free. Nothing went on fire, the car didn’t falter once
I switched back to ZapMap and located a new charger. Accompanied by the car’s own Spotify selections, I cruised past those sheep again, less curious this time, and made my way to a tiny dot on the map called Melvich. The charger was a CYC and was working perfectly. But it required pre-registration for an app, or an RFID card, duh. The contact phone number wasn’t working either. I set off again, to Scrabster, and soon there were warning lights flashing, telling me not to go above 50 mph, otherwise I would not reach my destination. I obeyed, meekly.
This time, the road wasn’t deserted, and I was being overtaken. By a squadron of vintage MGB GTs, a Maserati or two, several Jeeps and swarm of bikes. Of course, I remembered, this barren stretch of tarmac has become part of the North Coast 500, now a “thing” to do, to drive around in a couple of days skirting the edges of Europe’s most remote wilderness. It clearly works.
Scrabster is basically a fishing harbour and there I was assisted by a Good Samaritan, a driver who let me use his RFID card to charge up. It’s also the location of the Captain’s Galley, northern Britain’s best fish restaurant by a country mile, whose chef literally walks across the quay each morning to select that night’s menu. It did not disappoint.
The journey back to London was drama free. Nothing went on fire, the car didn’t falter once. I returned via the east coast to use Tesla’s own chargers in Scotland: Dundee (in a car park on the edge of town) and Edinburgh (hidden on the outer fringes of the airport). It was a journey through stunning scenery, especially detours through the rolling hills of the Scottish Borders, plus a little fun off-roading in the Yorkshire Dales in torrential rain.
This is, unquestionably, the future of driving. Bring it on. C
*zilch. Most Tesla owners get free charging within certain limitations. Otherwise it can be up to 15p per Kilowatt hour. You do the math.