A Tesla Review and Van’s Driving Trip Around The United States By, Van K. Tharp, PhD

In December of 2014, I bought one of the first Model S P85D vehicles from Tesla. It had 619 horsepower, making it one of the fastest production cars ever at the time, with about 250 miles of range.

In May of 2015, I drove it to California and back. At that time, there was only one route across the country. I had to drive up through South Dakota, down through Wyoming, and then travel over the high mountains near Denver, dealing with snow in Wyoming and Colorado. I shared my observations on that trip in Tharp’s Thoughts Issue #747.

I made a second trip around the country in 2016 and another in 2018. Each of the three trips was about 10,000 miles of travel. In subsequent articles, I also wrote down my observations on the condition of the United States.

When I first moved from Glendale, California to North Carolina I drove a U-Haul truck. I had a governor on it that limited my speed to 55 mph, but I still managed to drive across the country in four days. That amazes me now. Then, I went back to California, got my car (an Acura Legend), and pulled a small trailer behind it. Here I wasn’t limited to 55 mph, and I made it across the country in three days. That’s 2,543 miles – 99% of it on the same highway, Interstate 40. To complete the trip in three days, I had to drive about 850 miles per day, equaling 12+ hours of driving each day. Today, it’s a stretch for me to do 500 miles and I usually need my wife to take over for about two hours at some point, while I take a nap.

Two things always frustrated me about my 2017 and 2018 trips in my P85D. First, I couldn’t use Interstate 40 because there were no Tesla Supercharger stations in Arkansas and second, I couldn’t go to the one state that I have never visited, North Dakota, for the same reason—no Tesla Supercharger stations. After years of promised installations, they are now available in those places.

My Tesla Experience

Let me say a word about Tesla. When I bought my P85D, I rated them as the best car company in the world. They built the best car, and on a scale of 1-10, I would rate their customer service as a 10+.

Here is a picture of my car in 2014 when I first picked it up. I was personally greeted by the team. They showed me how to operate the car and how the features worked. When I had my car serviced for the first time, they brought a loaner car to my house (usually a car as nice as my own). Then, they drove my car to the service center and brought it back once they were done.

I paid about $140,000 for my P85D plus $1,500 for an additional four-year warranty and then another $4,000 for a paint protection coating. Over the six years I owned it, very little had to be done in the way of maintenance except for tires and wheels. On one trip, I hit a huge pothole on a freeway in Oklahoma City, damaging two tires and three wheels. The P85D was built with wheels out of alignment to gain peak performance, so the tires (21 inches and cost as much as $600 each) lasted at most 15,000 miles. I also replaced the 12-volt battery twice. That was all that had to be done in the 6.5 years that I owned it.

My Beliefs on Tesla

When I bought my P85D, Tesla stock was about $42. Today, it’s about $780. That means, if I had used that $145,000 spent on the car to buy the stock at the time, I would have $2.8 million worth of Tesla stock today. Instead, I recently sold the car for $42,500. But remember that we really trade our beliefs. And the following beliefs about the car influenced me.

  • First, I was really afraid Tesla would go bankrupt and it almost did.
  • Second, I subscribed to Seeking Alpha content about Tesla and there were always more negative blasts than positive ones – perhaps that should have been a clue[1].
  • Third, over time, I have watched Tesla deteriorate as a company.
  • And fourth, I get very nervous when I see famous people make outlandish remarks on Twitter – and Elon Musk was becoming one of the worst. He likes Dogecoin – come on!

Let me talk about one aspect of Tesla – customer service. Its rating, in my opinion, has gone down from a 10+ to about a 1.5. I give it 1.5 because their employees are friendly but only if you eventually manage to talk with one.

When Tesla came out with its “cheaper” cars – the Model 3 and the Model Y – their customer service became almost non-existent. I used to be able to talk to my service manager anywhere in the country. But Tesla’s model cannot handle large-volume and large-scale customer service. When the Model 3 began rolling out in 2017, talking to a human from Tesla became very difficult. Tesla owners now had to book a service appointment online through their website or app, my service manager quit, and you might wait on the phone for an hour or more for the privilege of talking with someone (who might not be able to help you anyway).

Superchargers were clogged up in certain places on my last driving trip (popular spots in California for example). I could imagine what the introduction of the Model 3 would do as there were 10 of those produced for every one Model S. On my last major trip, I found that at least one supercharger was non-functional at many of my stops. To me, Tesla was getting scary.

My Model S Plaid

Despite Tesla’s growing pains, I love the Model S. My neighbor told me that the best electric car made is Audi’s new e-tron GT. I priced one out and, with everything I’d want on the car, it came to about $150,000. But the e-tron didn’t come close to the Model S in terms of performance. As a result, I decided that my next car would be Tesla’s Model S Plaid+, slated to be released in 2022. But, they canceled the production of the Plaid+, and almost immediately I ordered a new Model S Plaid (no +) in June 2021.

Tesla was willing to give me a $37,100 trade-in for my old car, while they were selling them for over $50,000. So, I decided to sell it myself, and a buyer flew to North Carolina from Minneapolis to buy it for what autotrader.com calls the “dealer trade-in price” which was $42,500. Still better than Tesla’s trade-in price!

When I ordered the new car, Tesla said it would be available that month and this didn’t give me enough time to sell my car. However, by the time the order was finished, Tesla updated my delivery to July or August. While planning to take another driving trip, they assured me I would get it by mid-August.

When I bought my first Tesla, the P85D, I believe I was given an exact delivery date from almost the beginning of the process. But not the Plaid. August 1st rolled around, and I still didn’t have an exact delivery date. Could I talk to a human being about it? Only if I was willing to wait an hour for someone to answer the phone.

Finally, I was given a delivery date of the 23rd. My car was on a train in Alabama and was going to take about eight days to get to North Carolina. I had an appointment to pick up the car at 10:30 am on the 23rd and my wife and I were leaving on our driving trip on the 24th.

We arrived around 10:30 am and about five people were picking up their cars – all Model 3s except for mine. Nothing happened for about 90 minutes and then someone came out and said, “Your car arrived with some damage. We have to replace the rear window (which required shipping one from the factory in Freemont, CA) and repainting part of it. You can get your car in about five days.” I complained and one of the delivery people said that when I returned from my trip I would get the same car and they would personally deliver it to me. He also said he would send me his personal email and phone number. He didn’t, all I got was an appointment to pick up the car on the day I returned. How would you rate that for customer service? People buying a $70,000 Model 3 were getting better treatment than the only person there buying a $150,000 car.

The Driving Trip

We ended up driving my wife’s Acura MDX hybrid on our trip. There were some positive aspects to that because our first drive to Las Vegas involved us doing about 500+ miles per day and on four of the days I needed my wife to drive at least two hours. She was willing to do that in her car, but she would not have been willing to do that with the new car, especially with a yoke steering wheel.

This time, we could drive almost straight to Las Vegas on I40 – a route which I hadn’t taken the whole way since I’d moved to North Carolina in 1990.

I have several short observations from the trip:

  • First, the I40 route goes through some rather poor states. I am a Platinum Plus member of IHG Hotels and Resorts. It usually costs about 45,000 points for a free night. But I got a free night almost every night for about 20,000 points.
  • In my comments on our 2018 driving trip, I remarked about how the Internet was killing off shopping centers with many of them having 50% of the stores vacant. 2021 was much worse. COVID has killed many retail outlets.
  • In states like New Mexico, I found that about ninety percent of billboards were vacant and read, “Available.”
  • Each hotel was very different in its response to COVID. However, almost none of the hotels required that you wear a mask and most people didn’t. Kala and I have both been vaccinated but we still wore masks and in some places, we got strange looks for doing so. However, in most of the hotels, the staff wore masks and in some of them, they served us from behind plastic screens.
  • There are now Superchargers throughout the entire I40 corridor. I didn’t know where they were because I wasn’t driving a Tesla. If I had been, they would have been pointed out by the navigation system.
  • From the time we left Cary, NC until we arrived in Nevada I only saw one Tesla. It was a Model 3 and I didn’t see it until we were almost in Las Vegas. There were a lot of them in Las Vegas, though, with a Supercharger station close to our condo. Most of them had California or Nevada license plates. My wife said she saw one in Tennessee while she was driving and I was taking a nap.
  • Going through New Mexico I wanted to stop at a Native American trading post so we stopped at a large one. We were the only visitors in the store. I saw two pieces of Indian jewelry that I wanted to buy for my wife. They were half price – about $1,600 each. But my wife said “No”, so I didn’t. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about them…
  • In Las Vegas, I was going through the Grand Canal Shops in the Venetian Resort. Those are all very upscale, high-end shops. On the way out, I spotted a Native American store. I went into the store and saw the same two pieces of jewelry priced at even less than the 50% off the price from the trading post. Plus, the store was having a 25% off sale. I couldn’t resist and I bought both pieces for $2,000 –that’s about $1,000 less than the trading post. When I got back to our condo, I showed them to my wife. She immediately said they don’t suit me, take them back. I requested that she wear them and if I thought they didn’t look good on her, then I would take them back. She put them on and then changed her mind. In fact, she wore them for the rest of the trip and received many compliments about them.
  • Las Vegas has legalized marijuana. I was expecting to one day see marijuana shops in the casinos just like they have cigar shops. But that hasn’t happened. During our 2018 trip, there were legal dispensaries for marijuana, but you had to drive off the trip to find them.[2] In 2021, they are much more prevalent. Lots of billboards and advertising about where to buy. If you go to Freemont Street, there are at least two marijuana shops among their casinos.
  • While driving along the street in Vegas, a truck pulled up beside us. My wife said, “I smell marijuana.” And sure enough, the truck driver was smoking a joint. More dangers from being in Las Vegas.
  • Binion’s casino was the original home of the World Series of Poker until it outgrew them and moved to the Rio Casino. The large poker room is gone now and Binion’s is pretty much a slot machine casino.
  • My wife managed to win a $1,400 jackpot at Binion’s. She thought she was playing quarters, but she was playing dollars. On her second $5 bet she hit the jackpot. Guess what. The casino reports those winnings to the IRS. I had to request that I be sent a statement of win/loss from several casinos so that I can offset her wins with losses. I think the US is the only country in the world to tax gambling wins, but they report anything over $1,000 to the IRS.
  • I’ve been dealing with some health issues and while I was in Las Vegas, I developed a hernia that was quite painful. As a result, we decided to cut our trip short. We were originally going to go straight north through Wyoming and into Montana. I wanted to drive through North Dakota to say, “I’ve been there.” My grandfather’s home on Lake Lucerne in northern Wisconsin used to be what I called home as a child, while I lived for 10 years in the UK. I wanted to see Lake Lucerne again. This plan had to be dropped as it was important to get home quickly. Fortunately, although getting into the car was sometimes painful, I had no problems at all driving and was quite comfortable.
  • On the return journey – we took I15 to Utah and then I70 through Missouri and finally I64 in Kentucky – we probably saw five or six Teslas.
  • Driving on I-70 from Utah through Kansas one might go 100 miles between small towns. I-70 is one of the first routes for Superchargers, so you can definitely drive through there. But there are probably three gas stations for each supercharger – it’s so isolated.
  • The return journey allowed us to have a brief visit with Ken Long in the Kansas City area and with some friends from Cary who had moved to Lexington, KY.
  • My first three driving trips in my P85D caused me to estimate that about 20% of the miles on US freeways were under construction, but in most cases, there were just barrels to slow people down and nobody was doing any work. That estimate is now down to about 5% – the only major improvement that I saw on the trip.

My New Tesla – The Model S Plaid

I picked up my car on the 23rd of September – about a month later. I financed the car through my bank (not Tesla), and they were not sure how to process the lien, so it took about two hours to get the car. However, they did tell me to play with the car for about an hour to get familiar with it.

My observations:

  • It’s probably the most automated car on the planet right now.
  • It has a yoke steering wheel with buttons that control the horn, the autopilot, the turn signals, and the windshield wipers. Plus, you can do everything by pressing a voice command. For example, I said “Navigate to the Van Tharp Institute. The system heard “Van Park Institute,” but it came up with three options and the second was our office. Generally, I can name a place and the intelligence in that system will know the address and how to get there.
  • There are no stalks coming out of the steering wheel like a normal car for turn signs, lights, wipers, etc. It’s all buttons on the steering column.
  • It has a 17-inch landscape display (my P85D was a 17-inch portrait display) and everything else is located there.
  • My new car has a range of 397 miles which means very little chance of running out of electricity no matter where I go.

Imagine picking up a car that is that different and you’ve never driven an electric car before. But you just pick it up and drive it home. I had the advantage of being a prior Tesla owner and knowing what to look for. I’d also watched about 10 videos on the Model S Plaid, and I had printed out the owner’s manual. I had a bunch of questions to ask at the dealership, and no one there had the answers.

I remember when Tesla first introduced Summon and Autopark as a software update to my P85D. I couldn’t figure out how it worked so the next trip to the service department, I asked them about it. They gave me a technician who took me for a ride and demonstrated everything. That was when customer service was 10+ as opposed to what it is now.

I’ve now driven the car for four trips of 20+ miles and learn something new each trip. I haven’t come close to being able to test what the car can do. It has 1020 horsepower and does zero to 60 in 1.99 seconds. If I’m on the freeway and I just touch the accelerator – I’m suddenly doing 90 mph. I wouldn’t dare floor it.

The Bottom Line

I thought the P85D was the best car ever and my reaction to the new one is even more amazing. I bought this car because of the car, despite the customer service.

I’m also on a waiting list to get the Beta version of full self-driving. That means you plug in an address on the navigation system and the car takes you there… but of course, you have to be ready to take over at any time. The navigation signal now recognizes traffic lights and stop signs. And in the display screen, you can see cars in your blind spot on either side, plus obstacles like cones and barrels. My new car is a 10+.

Would you buy a Tesla now? Would you buy Tesla stock?

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