The Model X and me: Taking Tesla's smart car on a dumb trip

Commentary: This is a story about stress-testing and the battery in a Tesla Model X. Not testing the car. Testing me.

I've always been preoccupied with battery levels. Phones, tablets, laptops. Anything under the 70 percent mark and I start to lose my cool. My No. 1 concern with driving the Tesla Model X was the battery gauge.

Right there, on the dashboard. Visibly ticking down.

So I did something stupid. I worked out roughly how far it was from Sydney to Goulburn, a sleepy country town a couple hours drive south and, conveniently, the site of a Tesla Supercharger station. Looking at a map, it's really the only Supercharger station for miles, the first stop on the daisy chain route connecting Sydney to Melbourne.

I drove around until I had, again only roughly, enough charge left for a one-way trip to Goulburn on the Model X's battery. And then, the next morning, I drove south. As for the why, please refer to "Star Trek V." Kirk attempts to climb El Capitan simply because it's there. My own trip was totally arbitrary and a little bit stupid. But mostly I wanted to prove to myself that I could ride that battery dry without having a complete breakdown.

It's not just about me, though. Maybe you worry, too, about running out of juice in the electric car of your dreams.

487 kilometers

Let's rewind to the day before.

"Speeding tickets are souvenirs," I was told when I was handed the keys to the brand new midnight blue electric Model X P100D. It's only been available in Australia since the start of 2017, and I was told I was the first behind the wheel of this particular car. No pressure.

No pressure, but definitely G-force. Feeling the seatbelt automatically cradle me tighter into the leather seats when I ground the accelerator into the footwell, putting those claims of acceleration from 0-100kmh in 3.1 seconds to the test, it felt like takeoff. I have no other way to describe it.

The sweeping windshield, exposing a wide sky and ending somewhere behind my head. The aggressive, near-silent acceleration. The huge 17-inch touchscreen in the centre of the dash. The voice-controlled computer. The rows of bucket seats. The automatic gull-wing doors.

Inside, this felt more like a cockpit than it did a car.

Needless to say, driving around to deliberately run the battery down was fun. The brand new SUV, based on the feature package, was a cool quarter-million Aussie dollars of a car. In the future, I and others may be able to do this experiment with Tesla's much cheaper Model 3, which was finally introduced last week and will sell for about 44,000 Australia dollars. For now, I'll tough it with this beauty.

Tesla Model X on the inside and out

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173 kilometers

The next morning, I pulled out of my driveway and headed south to the next closest Supercharger. With Melbourne to Brisbane now connected and the route extending onward to Adelaide, most of Australia's state capitals will soon be linked by Superchargers, the quick recharge stations for Tesla vehicles that can top up your car in just over an hour -- 16 times faster than a regular outlet.

Elon Musk has gone a bit battery crazy Down Under lately, with the number of Superchargers on the east coast tripling in the past two years. That's not to mention the world's biggest battery he's planning on building in South Australia. I'm a little jealous.

To put it in perspective, I set out on a journey about two-fifths of the length of the Grand Canyon. That doesn't sound terribly impressive, but the Grand Canyon is, I take it, very big. It's also a pretty apt comparison, because in Australia, once you hit highways, you can find yourself hours from anything except a gas station or rest stop. Leave a big city, and you're in the bush. Australia is spread out.

Hopefully that gives you an idea of how I felt about setting out with maybe enough battery to get me there. I was about 50km (30 miles) outside of Goulburn when I really started white-knuckling the steering wheel.

My future space car had an automatic mapping feature that tells the driver how much charge you have left when you reach your destination. It's even smart enough to tell you when and where you should make stops to top up.

Sweat began to bead on my forehead, because the maps function wasn't working on the loaner Model X. It still flagged me as sitting in the dealership, right next to a Supercharger in North Sydney. This felt a little cruel. The car was not only smart, it was a bit of a bastard.

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Luke Lancaster/CNET

87 kilometers

That's what the battery read when I drove past the last exit for a destination charger. Destination chargers will charge your car's battery faster than a regular outlet, but not as quickly as the full-speed Supercharger. That, and they're not always open to the public, usually stationed at hotels or restaurants for patrons only. But in the end, I had committed to only using Superchargers, and plugging into a destination charger felt like I'd be copping out of the strictures of my arbitrary challenge.

It was really very hard to drive past that off ramp, especially because the Tesla was now telling me I really should drop down to 90km/h to preserve the battery and not, you know, run out before I reach anywhere helpful. That beading sweat was spreading, because I made the judgment call to switch off the air conditioning and drive with the windows up to conserve power. I'm nothing if not paranoid.

My usual car is a puttering, 10-year-old Ford that runs on diesel, and while I've seen the needle on that fuel gauge dip very low, I've never experienced the same anxiety I felt when I was driving on top of the big Tesla battery. Maybe it's a throwback to my old Game Boy days, when I scrounged for AA batteries in remotes, always worrying that the red power indicator would begin flickering. But as my destination drew closer and the margin grew finer, I was having flashbacks to the days I'd be begging my Game Boy to hold out until the next checkpoint.

30 kilometers: Supercharged

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Victory: a story in three parts.

Luke Lancaster/CNET

I made it to the Supercharger station at Goulburn Visitor's Centre with 30 kms on the battery to spare. That sounds like a lot, but it sure didn't feel like it as I sat on a very depleted battery cell with four wheels attached.

Plugging the car in was a triumphant moment. I know the challenge was self-imposed, and I was never more than a few hours from home. But I don't know if I could ride the battery down that low if it wasn't for a stunt. I know that logically it's no different to stopping at petrol stations, but something about hard integers ticking down made it feel far more urgent.

Fully charged, I pointed the Tesla in the other direction and headed home. For the last leg of the trip, back in the city with a moderately full battery and a chance to properly play with the Ludicrous Mode acceleration, I drove the Tesla as it's meant to be driven. When I got home, I pulled into the garage and plugged the car in again.

Test complete, though I have to admit some habits are too hard to shake. I'm not sure how much it affected the battery, but you better believe I drove the whole trip with my phone plugged in.

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Luke Lancaster Associate Editor / Australia
Luke Lancaster is an Associate Editor with CNET, based out of Australia. He spends his time with games (both board and video) and comics (both reading and writing).
Luke Lancaster
Luke Lancaster is an Associate Editor with CNET, based out of Australia. He spends his time with games (both board and video) and comics (both reading and writing).

Article updated on August 4, 2017 at 8:00 AM PDT

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Luke Lancaster Associate Editor / Australia
Luke Lancaster is an Associate Editor with CNET, based out of Australia. He spends his time with games (both board and video) and comics (both reading and writing).
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