What happens when you completely run out of battery in your Tesla Model S?

Updated Jan 2, 2016: Since this story was originally published, there’s been several Tesla firmware updates that presumably have altered the behavior of the Tesla battery pack. In specific, providing a “buffer mileage” after the battery runs down to 0 mi/km of range. When we originally experienced running out of battery under Firmware 5.9 as indicated by the “0” miles left on the instrument cluster, the Model S continued to travel for another 10 – 20 miles.

The most recent video by Bjørn Nyland under Firmware 7.0 seems to show that 0 means 0, or almost. Bjørn’s video suggests that the Model S came to a stop after the vehicle reached 0 km of range, however after an hour’s worth of charging under 13A, the vehicle was able to regain enough energy to continue driving despite the cluster still reading “0 km” (starting at 3:25 min of the video).

There’s been reports from Tesla owners that “balancing” the battery pack will help Tesla’s algorithms calibrate an absolute zero for the vehicle, though representatives from Tesla have said in the past that “‘pack balancing’ is not really necessary“.

 

 

Photo credit: Bjørn Nyland via YouTube

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Original story from May 15, 2014

So it’s the question everyone seems to want to ask following our recent Tesla racing story where we made a small mention that we … ahem, got stranded on the side of the road with no battery range left. How does one possibly run out of power in an 85 kWh Tesla Model S rated for 260 miles of range?

I’m sure some of you would suggest that the headline to this story should read “Only dummies run out of battery in their Tesla Model S”, especially considering Model S owners have done record breaking 12,000 mile journeys across four corners of the nation, not to mention that one Model S owner even crossed the country, and back, in a 60 kWh version.

We’ve received a lot of questions via emails, comments and even through media coverage on the topic, despite the story’s main intent of showcasing our Las Vegas Motor Speedway racing conquests, so we’ll go ahead and try to address them all here.


Battery Range and Trip Planning

The Tesla Model S provides you with a read out on the range (in miles or km) that’s remaining given the battery’s current state of charge. The rated range is formulaic and based on Tesla’s proprietary algorithms which attempt to estimate range by determining how much energy is stored in the battery. As its label implies, it’s truly just a rating.

Also see: Tesla Battery Range Degradation

Tesla’s rated range does not account for elevation changes or wind conditions. We find the site EVTripPlanner does an excellent job with estimating power consumption by taking into account speed, climate control usage and elevation changes.

Tesla-Range-vs-Speed

This graph shows the correlation of speed with available driving range. The slower you travel, the less amount of air drag and therefore the more range you’ll be able to squeeze out of your Tesla.

That said, there are factors you can’t predict upfront, such as wind conditions. While not a big concern in most cases, it should be taken seriously in areas that are prone to high wind conditions and strong gusts. A strong head wind can almost double the Model S power requirements. Even slowing down does not render a substantial improvement. With that in mind, get as much extra charge as possible and drive extra conservative well before crossing into high wind territory. It’s easy for us to say that now having just learned from our Las Vegas to Barstow experience.

So how did you run out of battery?

I wish I could tell you that it was due to an act of heroism where by we veered our Model S off the freeway and onto a narrow dirt road, in pursuit of a big-headed green Martian that needed our help getting back to its space transporter. After all, we’re driving an Intergalactic SpaceBoat of Light and Wonder so it would only make sense that we assisted.

Unfortunately the truth is far less mind blowing.

We ran out of charge because we severely underestimated the strength of the wind and didn’t leave enough buffer early into the drive to account for these unforeseen weather conditions.

We left the Las Vegas Tesla Supercharger with approximately 240 miles in range thinking it would be more than enough power to reach the Barstow Supercharger station that was 160 miles away.

A sand storm with strong headwinds of 35 mph, combined with the steep elevation changes and our usual keeping-up-with-traffic speed of 75 mph, well before reaching the sand storm, all culminated into one of the most stressful situations we’ve ever experienced in our Tesla Model S. We ended up 3 miles shy of reaching our destination, taking into account the additional 10 – 20 miles of reserve range that we were able to tap into. This equates to an additional power consumption of roughly 60%.

What happens with the Tesla Model S when it’s out of charge?

The estimated range on the driver’s dash will read 0 however it’s not the end. There is an extra reserve good for another 10 – 20 miles, depending on your power consumption, after reaching the 0 mark.

Not that you should be taking this for granted and let this ever happen, but it’s good to know that if you do end up in a situation where you’re at 0 miles remaining, you’ll likely reach your destination if it’s within 10 miles.

Once the reserve is depleted, the next event is a message that displays across the center console indicating that the car is shutting down, pull over safely. Needless to say you should do this immediately.

Like the Terminator, this is still not the end. The car will have enough battery to power the displays and other auxiliary functions, followed by the final-final stage that occurs approximately half an hour later. Everything will shut down. You’ll be able to open the doors and the emergency lights will continue flashing, but both the center console and dashboard will be completely dark.

What should you do?

Should you find yourself in this situation, put the car into the Tow Mode before everything begins shutting down. Make sure to block the wheels before putting the car into Tow Mode to prevent it from rolling off. The car will also need to be in neutral before it can be loaded onto a flatbed. Towing companies that work with Tesla know how to jumpstart the Model S battery, but you’ll save everyone time and energy by shifting the car into neutral before it’s completely dead.

We got a lift to the Barstow Supercharger station and began charging up the car again. Once charged it’s important to power off and reset the car. Make sure the doors are closed and use the Power Off button on the control panel (Controls -> E-Brake & Power Off). To start the car back up, press the brake pedal (you may also need to open a door if it does not start).  If you don’t Power Off, the Model S will still think it’s in a depleted power mode and not allow more than 20 kw of power consumption. Regenerative braking will also be disabled.

Sorry, Tesla Motors

Keep in mind that running out of power in a Tesla Model S is something that rarely ever happens. It’s 100% the owner’s responsibility to plan accordingly so that faux pas like this do not occur. Bailing an owner out of this type of situation is not something Tesla Motors has to cover, so as you can imagine we were extra thankful that they came to our rescue and towed us out.

Sorry.

 

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Gene

Author: Gene

Ex-Hot Rod junkie tinkering with anything and everything that had at least 400 cui and capable of smoking a set of fresh rubber at the drop of a dime. Same junkie for tire smoke, 100% electric convert, addicted to solar generated electricity.

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  • mr_charlie

    the take away is that the faster you go, even in good conditions, the less distance you will cover. I do not have elevation issues in my part of the world. My rule of thumb is that on inclement days it is wise to chop 20-25% of your range off of any anticipated range on a trip that you are be planning. YMMV

  • Tom Moore

    So how close did you come to making it? Ever think of doing some L2 charging along the way?

    • LV to Barstow is something we’ve done several times in the past without too much range concerns (typically arrive with 30 – 50 miles left) hence we never really had a need to explore L2 charging.

      We’ll definitely be more weather conscious next time and explore L2 charging if needed. Thanks!

      • Tom Moore

        plugshare.com shows 3 L2 chargers along your route. ;=)
        I’m heading for Brooklyn tomorrow (220 miles). But there are so many superchargers up there, and the weather is so nice, I will really have to work at it to get in trouble.

  • EleckChic

    My biggest questions after reading this is: even after this experience, did it sour you in any way about owning your Model S? Do you regret your purchase? And also I want to thank you for explaining in detail what happens in this type of scenario, how to deal with it and the outcome, because demystifying the experience reduces my fear as a soon-to-be Tesla owner.

    • It did not sour the experience whatsoever especially since it was mainly due to our own oversight.

      The way we see it, we would have experienced the same type of effect in a high performance gas car with the main difference being that the gas pump infrastructure is more readily available than EV chargers (for now).

      The experience has made us appreciate the Model S all that much more especially knowing how much thought and design detail went into each facet of the car – even helping stranded knuckle heads like us.

      • Mark Schaffer

        Given the abilities of the Tesla could detailed instructions come up on the screen for anyone finding themselves in your situation so they would know, step by step, what to do without a hitch? The car could be programmed to do this I assume?

    • Mark Schaffer

      I would note that people run out of gas in ICE cars and AAA has to carry a gas can with them.

  • Philip Trubey

    Look guys, if you leave Las Vegas going west, PAY ATTENTION TO THE WINDS. High winds blowing west to east ARE ACTUALLY COMMON in that part of the country. If you had started the trip with 256 miles instead of 240 (try filling it up next time), or knowing you didn’t have a full charge and knew you had winds (you checked the forecast, right?), you should have driven the speed limit. And then, failing all that, you should have had a backup charge plan that you could have executed before you ran your battery dead. There are Level 2 chargers along the way…

  • Voltus

    Buy a Volt, no worries about getting to your destination.

  • Colin

    Well, lets imagine at some point in the future most everyone has an electric car similar to the Tesla. Let’s assume that a certain percentage of the population are knuckleheads at least some of the time. Some might say we are all knuckleheads at one time or another. People are going to run of power just like people run out of gas. But you can’t have AAA or someone else bring you a gallon of charge to get to the next station. But maybe that’s the future, where AAA will carry a huge battery that can give you 50 miles of charge.

  • marty

    Thanks,I enjoyed reading it and the links are perfect

  • RM3

    Situations happen especially when it’s unexpected. Like Iberia, Mo to Effingham Illinois. Distance is 243.3 miles.

  • 3s-a-charm

    @Colin, in the future assuming many more people are driving electric vehicles the charging infrastructure (and battery technology) will most certainly evolve to meet demand. I heard that gas stations in Russia are being legislated into adding charging stations?? I’m not disagreeing or challenging what you said – just enhancing your comment. 🙂

  • high im high

    Hahahahahahahahaha

  • high im high

    How? I want to know more… Trying to learn about the systems right now, we will see after the break

  • high im high

    No chargers please… I’m trying let’s see if it will work \ud83d\udc4c

  • kouros

    In my 300 miles trips I found out that I don’t need to fully charge the car because there are two super chargers between me and the destination. In one trip we had strong winds and a 30 degrees drop in temp and I ended up lowering the car to low and reducing the speed to 55 to make it to next supercharger. In my last trip I fully charge the car and was able to handle the frigid temps without slowing down. I also use the worst estimate that is last 5 miles averaged and as I go through my trip I change that to 15 and 30 to know what my true range should be. Sometimes it’s half as much as the green bar showing what the range is.

  • js

    I’m imagining options for recovery services to be able to supply a crate of charged batteries to put in the trunk or even to hook up a small trailer full of batteries or even a massive jump start from a mega battery to get you a few more miles.

  • sklancha

    Oh, the tow of shame. It is a pretty humbling experience. I had a more dramatic experience and despite logging over 60,000 miles of EV travel all over the country, I was unable to overcome the additional challenges of the elements.
    It was our first trip to California. The car indicated that we had almost triple the amount of charge needed to make it to Barstow from our campsite at hole-in-the-wall campground in the Mojave dessert. But the trilogy of charge suckers [high winds, cold weather, and climbing elevation] proved to be beyond my skill set. To make things worse, there were no other areas to grab a charge between the campground and the Supercharger. Drafting behind trucks, keeping the heater turned off, and driving well below the speed limit didn’t make much different.
    When the car dropped to zero, we [almost] immediately got the message to pull over. I got Tesla on the phone and they guided me on putting it in tow mode. I barely got that accomplished when the car shut down completely. It was so fast that the suspension was stuck in the low position. Went from triple the need to dying 8 miles from my destination. Oh, the shame of it all

  • Rob Stow

    Checking this forum out because my brother-in-law in bought himself a Model S.

    The range calculator on the Tesla web site doesn’t provide numbers for cold weather – it only goes down to -10C. So … what kind of range can he expect on the highways when it is cold out? Ie., if Tesla’s range calculator let me select -20C and -30C, what numbers would I see? Most highways will have a 110 kph speed limit and because of range issues I imagine he is going to have to learn to stick to the speed limit instead of driving 10 kph over like most people do.