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

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.


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.



Tags: ,

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.

Share This Post On
  • 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

    • http://www.teslarati.com/ TESLARATI.com

      In our case we used 60% more range.

  • Tom Moore

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

    • http://www.teslarati.com/ TESLARATI.com

      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.

    • http://www.teslarati.com/ TESLARATI.com

      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.