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Video | Here's What Happens When a Tesla Runs Out of Battery

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Used 2012 Tesla Model S Performance
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author photo by Tyler Hoover May 2018

I now understand the heavy burden electric car owners must endure on a daily basis. Every moment is consumed with the crippling fear of being stuck on the side of the road, the uncertainty of whether you'll reach your destination. How Tesla owners can overcome this terrifying range anxiety and leave the house every day is a major act of courage.

Of course, I'm joking -- but I did feel a bit of anxiety during my first road trip in my newly purchased, 107,000-mile Model S.

For those wondering exactly what happens when a Tesla hits zero miles on its range meter, it's much less dramatic than you think. Like a gasoline-powered car, Tesla programmed their car with a hidden reserve, allowing the car to still operate for about 10 or 20 miles beyond the zero mark. Even when the battery is totally depleted, there's still the secondary 12-volt battery to run all of the accessories and safety systems -- so you don't have to worry about the whole car bricking like a dead iPhone at 60 miles an hour, leaving you without steering or brakes. Thankfully, I never had to test the hidden reserve with my Tesla -- but I did have a few problems.

When it was new, my 2012 Model S had an original full range of 265 miles. For battery longevity, Tesla recommends you only charge to full when needed for a long trip. The previous owner told me he only did this a handful of times, despite having several cross-country trips under his belt. Since I was curious how much the battery had degraded after six years and 107,000 miles, I decided to chage my battery to full. Turns out, it hasn't lost much! A full charge yielded a range of 250 miles -- or 94 percent of its original capacity. This was well within the 210-mile distance to the family lake cabin in rural Oklahoma, so I didn't have much range anxiety when I hit the road.

With the ample range cushion, I didn't bother using any hypermiling techniques, and I went the speed limit the entire way. Since most of the trek was on rural 2-lane roads, I had to pass a few slower vehicles -- but it didn't seem to affect the range much. I arrived at the cabin with 38 miles to spare, which kind of shocked me, as I didn't expect the stated range to be so accurate. Other than the mildly uncomfortable seats and the patchy 3G coverage for the streaming services, I didn't have a single issue with the car -- but I soon discovered there was zero chance of me making it back home on the same route.

Before the trip, I spent $200 on a 50-foot extension cord and an adapter to fit the portable charger to a clothing dryer outlet. Utilizing the higher-voltage outlet, I could charge at 20 miles per hour -- and have plenty of juice to return home after one night. It took a little effort to convince my mom that a Tesla isn't like a 1950s electric blanket, and won't burn the house down if I charge it using the dryer outlet -- but turns out, I was wasting my breath. The old cabin had the older-style dryer outlet, and my adapter wouldn't fit. This meant my only option was to use a wall plug -- which charges at only 4 miles per hour.

For some reason, the wall plug at the cabin was performing even worse than that, charging at only 2 or 3 miles per hour. Since I was only staying at the cabin for about 40 hours, charging in this fashion left me 50 miles short from getting home. Thankfully, this did give me enough range to drive to the nearest supercharger in Tulsa -- but that was more than an hour out of the way. It was also located at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, so I ended up wasting $10 in slot machines in about 90 seconds -- and another $30 on a giant meal that I didn't need. That would have just about paid for a tank of gas for my GMC Sierra Denali to make the same trip.

At least the supercharger did its trick, which charges for free for life with this old Tesla -- even though I'm not the original owner. An hour of charge yielded enough range to get me 200 miles back home with 20 miles to spare, and at no point was I worried about not making it. Tesla's built-in GPS really makes it idiot proof, as it not only routes the trip, but also plans the supercharger pit stops. If you follow the directions, it's impossible to find yourself stranded.

So really, my maiden voyage in the old Tesla wasn't very dramatic -- and with the right adapter plug, I think it will be making many more trips to the cabin and back. There's really nothing that's even beginning to show its age, so this quirky old electric car might actually be very reliable. Famous last words, I know ...

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Used 2012 Tesla Model S Performance
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$47,730
This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Video | Here's What Happens When a Tesla Runs Out of Battery - Autotrader