On May 31, about 50 miles from the Canadian border, an electric car struggled up steep hills, driving along at 40 miles per hour. The sun was coming up and rain was coming down. Things were looking bleak. The car, which usually plotted the route to the nearest charging station, refused to give directions.
“It didn’t even say turn around and go back,” said Bo Jayatilaka, who was driving the car. “It gave up and said, ‘You’re not going to make it.’ The plot disappeared.”
Rewind to a few weeks earlier: Tom Rammer, a Chicago attorney, had just won two days with a Tesla at a silent cell phone auction for the American Cancer Society. He recruited Mike Kirby, a Fermilab physicist, to figure out how to get the most out of those 48 hours.
Rammer and Kirby agreed that the answer was a road trip. Their initial plan was a one-way trip to New Orleans. Another involved driving to Phoenix and crossing the border to Mexico for a concert. Tesla politely vetoed these options. Ultimately, Rammer and Kirby decided on an 867-mile drive from Chicago to Boston. Their goal was to pick up Jayatilaka, a physicist working on the CMS experiment, and bring him back to Fermilab. To document their antics, the group hired a film crew of six to follow them on their wild voyage from the Windy City to Beantown.
Jayatilaka joked that he didn’t trust Rammer and Kirby to arrange the trip on their own, so they also drafted Jen Raaf, a Fermilab physicist on the MicroBooNE experiment, whose organizational skills would balance their otherwise chaotic approach.
“There was no preparing. Every time I brought it up Tom said, ‘Eh, it’ll get done,’” Raaf laughed. Jayatilaka added that shortly after Raaf came on board they started seeing spreadsheets sent around and itineraries being put together.
“I had also made contingency plans in case we couldn’t make it to Boston,” Raaf said, with a hint of foreshadowing.
On May 29, Rammer, Kirby and Raaf picked up the Tesla and embarked on their journey. The car’s name was Barbara. She was a black Model S P85D, top of the line, and she could go from zero to 60 in 3.2 seconds.
“I think the physics of it is really interesting,” Jayatilaka said. “The reason it’s so fast is that the motor is directly attached to wheels. With cars we normally drive there is a very complicated mechanical apparatus that converts small explosions into something that turns far away from where the explosions are. And this thing just goes. You press the button and it goes.”
The trip started out on flat terrain, making for smooth, easy driving. But eventually the group hit mountains, which ate up Barbara’s battery capacity. In the spirit of science, these physicists pushed the boundaries of what they knew, testing Barbara’s limits as they braved undulating roads, encounters with speed-hungry Porsches and Canadian border patrol.
“If you have something and it’s automated, you need to know the limitations of that algorithm. The computer does a great job of calculating the range for a given charge, but we do much better knowing the terrain and what’s going to happen. We need to figure out what we are better at and what the algorithm is better at,” Kirby said. “The trip was about learning the car. The algorithm is going to get better because of all of the experiences of all of the drivers.”
The result of the experiment was that Barbara didn’t make it all the way to Boston. As they approached the east coast, it became clear to Kirby and Raaf that they wouldn’t have made it back in time to drop off the car. Although Rammer was determined to see the trip through to the end, he eventually gave in somewhere in New Jersey, and they decided to cut the trip short. Jayatilaka met the group in a parking lot in Springfield, Massachusetts, and they plotted the quickest route back to Chicago.
Flash forward to that bleak moment on May 31. After crossing the border, just as things were looking hopeless, Barbara’s systems suddenly came back to life. She directed the group to a charging station in chilly Kingston, Ontario. Around 6:30 in the morning, they rolled into the station. The battery level: zero percent. After a long charge and another full day of driving, they pulled into the Tesla dealership in Chicago around 8:55 p.m., minutes before their time with Barbara was up.
“The car was just alien technology to us when we started,” Jayatilaka said. “It was completely unfamiliar. We all came away from it thinking that we could have done this road trip so much better with those two days of experience. We felt like we actually understood.”