How We Broke The Electric and Autonomous Cannonball Run Records
Autopilot is good, tornadoes are bad, and slow is fast (until it isn't).
Two days ago, Franz Aliquo, Warren "Mr. X" Ahner, and I announced that we broke both the electric and autonomous vehicle Cannonball Run records, covering 2,877 miles from Redondo Beach, California to the Red Ball Garage in 55 hours—97.7 percent of that time with Tesla’s Autopilot in operation. A lot of people asked about how we did it.
This is the first part of that story.
Why do this?
Who doesn’t want to? California is the finish line of the Western world. It’s part of the American mythos, going back to the settlers. "Go west" is both exhortation and rallying cry, and I’ve done it dozens of times. After breaking the old Cannonball record in 2006 in 31 hours and 4 minutes, I thought “Cannonballing” was over; I was wrong. Regular gas cars don’t have a lot of room for improvement, but with electric and self-driving cars, the sky’s the limit. The next 20 years are going to see a lot more of this—done more safely—than ever before.
Who was on the team?
My teammates were cybersecurity expert and racing instructor Warren “Mr. X” Ahner & Streetwars and Rental Car Rally founder Franz Aliquo. Mr. X works for a major American car company and had . . . let's say "amazing" insights into how to extract maximum performance out of both the Tesla’s battery and its Autopilot system. Franz didn’t have as much driving experience, but is a genius, a quick learner, and a master strategist. I barely knew them before the drive, and they only met one another the night before departure. The two of them complemented each other perfectly. Opposing personalities and skill sets are often better in high-pressure scenarios. The results speak for themselves.
What car did we drive?
A 2016 Tesla Model S 90D. We very specifically chose not to use the high-performance P90D Ludicrous variant, which accelerates more quickly but has about 25 miles less range. Weight is the enemy of efficiency, so why pay for performance you’re not going to use? Also, we ran on the smaller 19-inch wheels, which saves weight and adds range. The larger 21-inch options may look better, but they're both pointless and more easily damaged.
How fast did we go?
Safely, and within the flow of traffic, of course. Interstate speed limits varied on our route, and were as high as 80 mph in places like Utah. Traffic often flowed as much as 10-15 mph over the limit, and Autopilot is limited to 90 mph, anyway. Wind resistance exacerbates battery draw over 70 mph, so driving faster isn’t necessarily the “fastest” way to get across the country.
That, at least, is one explanation.
How much did we use Tesla Autopilot?
The final tally clocked in at 97.7 percent, according my brilliant engineer co-driver, Mr. X. Technology is only as good as our understanding of it. Once you understand its limitations, it’s a wonderful tool for driving more safely, at any speed. The kind of person who has an accident with it is the kind of person who has an accident without it.
Did we take our hands off the wheel?
Not this time. We all had at least one hand on the wheel at all times. Involuntary disengagements are for amateurs. It means you weren’t paying attention, or didn’t know when you should be using Autopilot. It’s not a self-driving car, even though it often feels like one.
How did we recharge?
We used Tesla’s Supercharger network. There are other networks, but none of them will charge an electric vehicle as quickly, and multi-charger Superchargers are generally closer to Interstate on-off ramps than rival networks. Every minute counts, and so does every quarter mile.
How many times did we stop?
I probably shouldn’t say. I’d like this record to stand for a little bit. For now, let’s just say it was less than Tesla’s GPS told us it would be.
What route did we take?
There is only one optimal route, and that is the shortest distance between two points along Tesla’s Supercharger map, which runs approximately 2,877 miles. I wish it were shorter. The most ideal route—available only to gas cars—is 2,811 miles. Two more chargers were available on our route than existed the last time I did this, and a few more could shave off even more distance.
How accurate was the original drive plan?
It wasn't, at all. The prior record—on which I joined Carl Reese & Deena Mastracci—was 57:48. I hoped to shave off about 2 hours, with a projection of 55:45. I was shocked that we were able to shave an additional 45 minutes even off of that estimate. The final time of 55 hours was quite a surprise.
How did we break the prior record by such a large margin?
This is the semi-secret sauce—but not really. The obvious part was to study ambient temperatures, guesstimate battery temperatures, and be smart about speed. Weather, geography, and traffic kill electric vehicle range. We hit multiple storms, including what seemed to be a tornado, which cost us at least 90 minutes. Still, our results in optimizing the Tesla’s range far exceeded our best estimates. Let’s just say it really helped having Mr. X in the car.
What about speeding tickets?
Drive as if your life depends on it, because it does. Speeding tickets are for amateurs. If you drive dangerously any speed, sooner or later you will be stopped, and will deserve to be. If you’re driving a white Tesla at any speed, well, cops are people too. They read car magazines. The assumption is that you’re a safe driver, probably environmentally conscious, and worried about wasting your battery power through unnecessary speed.
I haven’t been pulled over, at any speed, in years.
What additional technologies does one need for this type of run?
- An iPad Mini to run Waze, which shows traffic, accidents, and police
- Tesla’s built-in browser, running a web-based Waze variant called Extensis, as backup to the iPad
- A Valentine One radar/laser detector, once the state-of-the-art, and still amazing
- An Escort Max360 radar/laser detector, connected via Bluetooth to an iPhone running Escort Live, and updated via Escort’s “Defender” Database
- A Samsung Edge S7, running Comma.Ai’s Chffr data logging and video capture app, for evidentiary purposes
- A US Fleet Tracking GPS unit, also for evidentiary purposes
- A Uniden Home Patrol II Radio Scanner, for obvious reasons
- Double the amount of however many GoPros, professional camera mounts, batteries, cables, adapters, and lens cleaning cloths you think you need, because there’s no time to go off-route to shop
Did we use air conditioning?
Sometimes, but only on Tesla’s “Range Mode,” which is a fancy name for Econ mode in any other car. It got hot—damn hot. So hot, we had to spend $19.95 on a sun shade for the panoramic roof, because the Model S doesn’t come with one.
What about sleep?
I was inspired by a Bloomberg story about a guy who went camping in his Tesla. He claimed that with the rear seats folded down, a 6-footer could comfortably lie outstretched in the trunk. I bought a pillow, a sleeping bag and an inflatable mattress, and we tested it out in the parking lot of the Portofino Inn. The results were . . . unhappy. Not recommended.
Road noise and safety became obvious issues.
This was all a terrible idea, and unsafe. I preferred to catnap in the backseat. At the end of the day, I recommend being seat-belted and using a neck pillow.
How did we document the run?
I like a lot of evidence. Most people claiming “Cannonball” records are lying for bragging rights at their local bar. Every week, some guy comes up to me to tell me about how they drove from A to B at some crazy speed. Maybe one in a thousand is telling the truth. Probably fewer.
We recorded our trip using GPS and video on two devices, a US Fleet Tracking GPS unit, and George Hotz’s Chffr app. We also shot video, took hundreds of stills, kept shopping and toll receipts, and had multiple third-party witnesses. Anything less is amateur, or worse.
What about food?
As little as possible, for obvious reasons. A lot of Superchargers don’t have facilities, and if they do, they’re closed at night. I opted to eat healthy. Quest bars, water, fruit, nuts. My teammates preferred Arby’s. Or worse.
What about bathroom breaks?
None unless we were charging. The longest driving stages were no more than three hours, which is much better than doing this kind of thing in a gas car, where you’ve got 6-8 hours between stops. Then you’re looking at bags, bottles and external catheters. I’ve used them all.
Is 55 hours breakable?
Absolutely. Records were made to be broken. We could get back into the exact same car and cut two hours off. A better car? Three. With every improvement in battery and charging technologies, times will fall. Almost every manufacturer has electric cars coming. Porsche’s Mission-E looks interesting, but it needs a faster charging network.
This will go on and on until electric cars match gas cars for range and charge times, then someone will hack an autonomous EV, and someone will break the 28:50 Cannonball time.
I intend for that someone to be me.
Will we go again?
I will, of course. Every time something better comes along, I’m in. We’re a competitive species. Life finds a way.
For the record, before we left, the Tesla’s GPS said it would take 58 hours, 55 minutes to get across the country. After we arrived, I checked to see how long it would take to get back, and it said 54:55, or five minutes faster than the record we just set:
What does it mean? I could write a book about it.
More from Warren "Mr. X" Ahner & Franz Aliquo coming soon.
Alex Roy is an Editor-at-Large for The Drive, author of The Driver, and set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in 31 hours & 4 minutes. You may follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.