Driving a Tesla on the German Autobahn by Peter Vierthaler
Have you ever wanted to drive fast on the German superhighway called the Autobahn? I recently rented a Tesla 3 in Amsterdam for just 75 Euro per day with free charging. A Tesla 3 performs just as well on the Autobahn or maybe better than many BMW, Mercedes and Porsche models that can rent for 200 Euro per day and more.
Usually, I take the train but this time I rented a car from UFO Drive, an Amsterdam based company that rents only electric vehicles. My experience with UFO didn’t get off to a good start. The pickup address was a construction site. I walked around for a half hour looking for access to the garage until I decided to give them a call.
“Hello, I can’t find the address to pick up the car.”
“Go to the Hilton and take the elevator down to level -2.”
“The address of the Hilton is 130 not 154”, I exclaimed.
“Yes, that is correct” she said. I just left it at that.
“Is there an attendant that can help me?”
“No, please use the app.”
I walked to the Hilton and found my way down to the level -2. After a few more minutes of wandering, I came upon the bank of Tesla 3s against the south wall. Faced with a group of near identical cars, I struggled to identify which one was mine. My booking showed me nothing, but the app I had just uploaded showed the plate number. I found my car, pushed the unlock symbol and the mirrors popped out. The car was open. I threw my carry-on into the trunk, sat down, pushed the start button, and headed to the exit. I was on my way! In retrospect I could have saved myself some time by watching the introduction video but who wants to watch a video to pick up a car?!
Soon after driving out of the garage, I received my first speeding ticket of 65 Euros. I didn’t know about it until I received the final UFO bill. I am anticipating a few more tickets in the coming weeks.
My journey took me in a big loop, Amsterdam-Stuttgart, Stuttgart-Salzburg, Salzburg-Graz, Graz back to Amsterdam. It is the last leg from Graz to Amsterdam that I want to tell you about. I had just one day to get back to Amsterdam. My sister was scheduled for surgery and she wanted me to bring her to the hospital the next day, I had to be there. The distance is 1220 kilometers (approximately 768 miles) and 12 hours is what the navigator told me it would take. “I’ll arrive around 7 pm”, I told her.
I left my aunt’s place at 7 am weaving through back roads to get to the Autobahn. All good when I entered the world famous Autobahn, but then I hit the tunnels. Austria is incredibly mountainous and there is no way to build an Autobahn without tunnels, lots of them. As a kid I enjoyed them but now they just slowed me down. Had the navigator adjusted for the reduced speed of 100 km/hr (62 mph)? At the German border I looked again, arrival time 7:30 pm, the tunnels and the charging stop had cost me a half hour!
5 km (3 mi) into Germany, there it was, the round white sign with five black lines running through it, no speed limit! I pushed the accelerator to the floor and the Tesla leapt forward, pushing me back into my seat. I felt a kind of freedom that you can’t find anywhere else. With the Stones turned up high I toyed with speeds over 180 Km/hr (120 mph). Adrenaline rushed through my body as I passed reached 190, then 200. Now I was sure I could make up for lost time, or so I thought.
The fun was short lived. The first of a series of construction signs appeared. The signs looked innocent enough, just a worker with a shovel digging into a small pile of dirt. The reality was much different: 100s of workers driving massive equipment into mountain size pile of dirt. This construction zone was 15 km (9 mi) long and at a speed of only 80 km/hr (50mph). About 30% of my trip would be construction zones. Was the navigator taking these into consideration?
The trip through Germany continued in much the same way. Other speed reductions included quiet zones at 120 (74 mph), sharp curves from 80 to 120, passing trucks (sometimes taking 5 kilometers , or 3 miles, to pass another truck) at 80, and epic stand-still traffic jams. Altogether these accounted for 70% of my trip leaving only 30% to drive fast, and that I did. It takes a while to get used to the higher speeds. I am fairly comfortable staying steady at 180 km/hr (111 mph) but nursed the Tesla up to 220 km/hr (136 mph) on one particularly empty stretch of highway just outside of Frankfurt.
It takes practice to drive like a seasoned German racer and here is what you need to know………
It takes a while to learn the rules of the road. The most important rule is to pass only on the left. Passing on the right is taboo, enrages fellow drivers and can get you a ticket. The second most important rule is to stay right unless passing—something that is often overlooked by state troopers in the US. As fast as you think you may be, a seasoned German Autobahn veteran will make you feel like you are standing still. Slowing a veteran in the left lane is the ultimate sin and can usher a response ranging from blinking lights to outright vehicular harassment. One such driver veered into my lane just inches in from the front of my car, sharing a well understood hand signal. Sometimes you need a break from this craziness and that is where the convenience of self-driving comes in.
This Tesla 3 was outfitted with all of the current self-driving options, and it took me a while to figure them out. UFO drive had sent me a link explaining self-driving, which again I didn’t read—why make it easy? Clicking down on the drive lever once starts the cruise control. I set the cruise control for 4 Kmh (2.5 mph) over the speed limit. Once activated it uses regenerative breaking to keep you three seconds from the car in front of you. This is especially useful at slow speeds and in traffic jams. Self-driving includes lane control as well.
Clicking down twice starts the self-steering that keeps you centered in the lane. Self-steering does not engage at speeds over 150 km/h (93 mph) and the system throws tantrums (alarms blaring and lights flashing) if you exceeded 150 km/h (93 mph) while engaged. Self-steering requires hands on the wheel and if after 3 warnings that you aren’t complying it will shut down, much like a slap on your hand. The navigator plays a crucial role in optimizing the self-driving experience.
The navigator knows the current speed limit and displays it. This is very helpful in Europe because speed limits are constantly fluxuating, and it is a part of what makes speed limit enforced Autobahn driving so stressful. Exceed this speed limit by little more than 5 km/h (just 3 mph!) and a bright flash indicates a ticket is on the way. I was blitzed (the German word for a camera flash) twice that I know of. Tesla provides an alarm that chimes at a set speed to keep you in line. Be careful though, the navigator does have its weak points and often misses construction zone limits and can misinterprets fog and quiet limits as the overarching speed limit. That caused me confusion and lead to a lot of blinking head lights in my rear-view mirror.
At my third charging stop I scrolled to the destination time. My arrival was now 8:30. I had lost an hour and a half at the half-way mark……………… was the Tesla navigator and system to blame?
Tesla does a great job with the navigating your route. It knows where you are and in seconds maps your destination inclusive of charging stops. Don’t try to second guess the navigator. It is on your side. It will work to minimize your travel time. One thing that will throw it off are fast speeds. It assumes that you will be traveling at the speed limit. In the case of the Autobahn, it assumes a maximum of 130 km/h (80 mph). Anything above that will increase your need for charging. Don’t assume that because you are driving faster that you will arrive sooner. The added drag at high speeds will drain your battery faster than the speed will advance you. More often than not you will arrive at your destination faster if you stick to the speed limit. Boring!
Finding the chargers can be a challenge. The navigator will get you close but a charging bank is often in a back corner of a large property. You will almost never find directional signs and you may have to hunt for a while. The charging cords are easy to plug in. The charging app will indicate the length of charge. It is smart to stick with the recommended charging time. To little and you might not make it to the next charger, too much and it will lengthen your arrival time. Now that you’re plugged in, it’s time to eat!
Charging stops run the gambit from traditional gas stations with a German restaurant to exclusive electric vehicle stations operated by Tesla and others. My first charging stop was a Courtyard hotel with charging way in the back. I plugged in and had 40 minutes to kill. I walked a quarter mile to the lobby and found a fantastic breakfast buffet. It featured pancakes, waffles, eggs, sausage and as many cappuccino as I could drink. Not every station restaurant is that plush. More often than not, McDonalds, Burger King and KFC are your only options. My fourth stop was a gravel parking lot with only a McDonalds a block away. I grabbed my Filet-o-Fish, fries and cola and sauntered back to the chargers. I had 15 minutes left to down the food.
I took another look at the destination time, 8:55, 2 hours behind my original estimate. I called my sister to let her know, no dinner together tonight. I continued with my trip with 2 chargers left to go.
The fifth charger was the last one in Germany. I was busy on the phone and missed the off ramp. No worries, the navigator showed a U-turn opportunity in just 5 km (3 mi) ahead. I ended the call and watched intently for the next off ramp. I exited, crossed the bridge, and started down the ramp. Half-way down I slammed the breaks…. a car was coming at me in reverse. I pulled to the side, walked down further and in front of me an upside down Mercedes. The driver was sitting up against the car, the medics, and a crowd had formed a semi-circle around him. He looked like he was in good hands. I returned to the car, backed up the ramp, and turned to the navigator for help. It showed me a country road to get back to the charger. 20 minutes later I entered the charging station. It was different, no gas pumps, only high-speed DC fast chargers. This was the first charging only fueling station on my route.
I plugged in and needed 45 minutes of charge. Uggh… I checked my destination time, 9:30, two and a half hours more than the original estimate. By this point I was exhausted and losing my patience. I got out of the car and walked into the restaurant, just lettuce in coolers on both sides of me. It looked like salads were the big option here. A far cry from the burgers, sausages and pork knuckles I had come to expect at other charging stops. I wasn’t hungry though and purchased another large coffee to go.
I had time to kill so walked around the station. About half of the chargers were in use and the roofs were loaded with solar panels. There were no gas pumps, leaky nozzles, no tanks to fill, no fuel trucks. The fuel is simply delivered from underground power lines—something one could rarely find stateside.
I walked back to my car and saw through the window that the charging session was complete. I clicked to unlock the door but nothing happened. “Oh no!” this can’t be. I checked the trunk to make sure it was closed. It was. Now what? I turned to the chat on the app and typed my message. “MY DOOR WON’T OPEN. IS SOMEONE THERE? A minute later I got a call and after giving my birthdate the door opened. Phew! I was on my way again.
My last charging stop was in Holland. It was a small charging station with 8 chargers. I left my door unlocked this time. It was late, 8:30, and the Burger King was closed. I settled for a package of cashews and another cup of coffee from the gas station next door. I waited for 200 km (124 mi) of charge and took another look at the destination time, 10 pm. Three more hours than estimated, 15 hours in total.
My final link to Amsterdam was fairly uneventful except for another “blitz” and a 10-minute detour. I pulled into my sisters at 10:10. I was physically and mentally exhausted but had a smile on my face. I parked the car and packed my luggage up the stairs. My sister door was closed and she was fast asleep.
I sat on the couch, my bed when in town, and reflected on the day. I had lived a fantasy of many drivers globally, driving unlimited on the German Autobahn. The Tesla 3 had performed admirably and was everything that I had come to expect from a Tesla. I was happy that UFO Drive had made such a great car available for such a low price and I had saved $500 in gas because the charging was free. I had driven 1500 km (932 mi) over the allotment and was charged an additional $450, understandable. Would I do it again? You bet I would! UFO drive has several locations throughout Europe, and I would highly recommend them for a guaranteed thrill on your next European vacation.
….and by the way my sister’s surgery was a success and she recovered in record time!
Great story, Peter! Very informative.
I realize that I am too old for this kind of driving! I did do the European freeways in the 1960s with a Jaguar 3.4 liter. It was fun, except for the non-assisted clutch which required army boots!
Good that Heidi recovered well!