Can You Push a Dead Tesla?

For quite a number of years now, the main fear behind making the switch from conventional internal combustion engines to electric cars has been centered on a single issue: range anxiety. The average gasoline car can get about 400 miles from a single tank of gas. As things stand, 400 miles on a single charge is still at the very top end of EV technology, offered by brands like Tesla. Many others are still languishing between 150 and 250 miles per charge.

That kind of range will always do in the city, but it’s not enough for those who have to do long-distance commutes, or who regularly take the car on longer-distance journeys either for work or leisure. This is what gives rise to range anxiety. In the city, breakdown assistance and other recovery services are always nearby, but when you’re on a remote section of an Interstate highway. The risk of dying on your wheels with no power to go and with no charging station in sight is seemingly ever-present.

The Final Push: Moving Your Dead Tesla

Tesla Model S on the side in a car park
Tesla Model S on the side in a car park

A further problem arises when your Tesla has died in the middle of nowhere and you are struggling to get any kind of professional help to you. Any Tesla owner will likely have already been warned that towing their car on its wheels, or performing and kind of dragging or pushing along the road while the car’s drivetrain is inactive, is bad for the vehicle.

Hitting Zero Miles

Tesla’s own user guide instructs very frankly on what to do and what not to do if and when you find yourself stranded at the roadside. First of all, hitting zero miles on your range indicator is not quite the Doomsday countdown that it seems. Tesla cars are built with special buffers that store a little extra energy that can maintain a speed of 65mph for approximately 10-20 miles after you’ve hit zero miles of range.

The buffer is also a finite supply of power of course, and will itself run out of juice. It will start to slow from its 65mph limit and before long it will be maxed out at 15mph, even when you have the accelerator pedal pushed all the way down. Throughout that slowing process, you’ll be getting audio-visual warnings that the power is dangerously low. After a little while longer, the vehicle will roll to a halt, and that’s it — dead.

Towing

If you haven’t made it to the nearest charging station, then hope is not lost! If you are out of power, then Tesla’s system will show you the important dos and don’ts. It recommends that you call for Tesla Roadside Assistance, for which a flatbed truck is dispatched to collect your vehicle and carry it to a charging station or service center.

Does my lovely compact Model S really need that giant flatbed truck? Why can’t I just get a local team with a crew cab and a winch to take me to the charging station?

“But.. but… my Google search has found one such service much closer and they could probably get here well within an hour!”

Alas, Tesla makes it expressly clear in their system warning and user guide that you should never attempt to transport the car with any wheels on the ground. The reason? They say that dragging the Tesla with wheels on the ground leads to significant damage to the drivetrain, as well as overheating.

Pushing a Dead Tesla – Can it Be Done? Will it Recharge?

An interesting notion that has circulated the online message boards of Tesla and other EV brands is whether or not towing these cars or pushing them manually will actually recharge them via the regenerative braking system. The theory goes that by leaving the drivetrain on, and then either towing or pushing it, the regenerative force will kick in and generate enough power to recover at least some of the range miles.

YouTube has showcased some interesting examples of this, one of which was actually with a Nissan Leaf rather than a Tesla, but the idea in general holds true for EVs in general. Dutch driver, Vincent Everts, was running late for his 3-year-old daughter’s birthday party, and was stranded 43km (26.7 miles) from Amsterdam, his target destination. The problem? His Nissan Leaf had run out of juice with no easy charging solution in sight.

The video shows how he employed the help of a friend and his 400hp Toyota Tundra pickup truck to get the car to its destination and even charge it along the way:

Everts says quite plainly that the Nissan told him under no circumstances — except in emergencies — should he try to tow the Nissan Leaf with wheels on the ground because of the damage it would do to the car’s drivetrain in particular. Undeterred, he felt his need was greater than the warning and constituted an emergency, so they hooked up the car and got going. Vincent’s departing words were hardly encouraging: “I don’t even have enough power to turn on my hazard lights, so I hope this works!”

The results are quite interesting. The car was towed with all wheels down on the ground and Vincent sitting in the car. After a short distance, they discovered that their actions were indeed charging the car as Vincent applied the brake gently and gained regenerative force. Next came the absolutely astonishing part of this story. Not only was the car charging up using the regenerative braking energy, but it was charging at a rate that would challenge even the most popular supercharging outlet. After just 10 minutes of towing, Everts reported that his car had regained 73 kilometers (45.3 miles) of range. This was back in 2011, so 45.3 miles is almost half of the car’s total 100-mile range. Everything was looking rosy!

Everts’ enthusiasm was somewhat dulled by a less-than enjoyable discovery that the range his Leaf was showing was in fact not accurate. It showed 73 kilometers, but after driving just 5km, the range meter showed that he only had 52km left of range, meaning that each kilometer driven in reality was actually consuming about 4km in real range from the car. Despite that, towing the car and making use of the regenerative braking force did give enough power to get him to his destination — he had been towed a good portion of the way already, so that helped — but even he didn’t seem enthusiastic about this method being used as a regular form of emergency charging that people should employ.

Vincent Everts’ story shows that the principle does hold that an EV can be towed and recharged using the advent of regenerative braking. In some ways, however, it was lucky that this happened to someone in the Netherlands, where most things are a short distance away. It wouldn’t be of tremendous use if you were, say, driving on an interstate highway at night past the Bonneville Salt Flats in the middle of nowhere, Utah. The question is though, would this work with pushing?

Clearly one of the benefits of Everts’ methods was that he was being pulled at a decent speed at which he could apply the brakes and recapture a good amount of kinetic energy to convert into electrical energy for his Leaf battery.  Pushing your Tesla Model 3 or, if you could manage it, larger Model X down a flat road would likely not yield the same results.

Calculating the Push Data

One user on Reddit was answering our central question “Can you charge a Tesla car by pushing it” back in 2015. User Fooljoe pointed out that if you were pushing the car down a steep hill and therefore could enlist the support of the good force gravity, then you could achieve the same effect. The problem is that you’d need a very long hill to gather enough charge, or you’d have to keep getting the car back to the top again over and over to roll down and collect more energy. In other words, it’s technically possible, but not recommended.

The same user calculated that if on flat ground, you’d have to push the Tesla for about 800 hours in order to give it the full charge. That’s 33 days and 8 hours or so of constant pushing. Once again, it’s not a viable solution, but then again, like Everts showed, you wouldn’t have to charge it all the way, just enough to regain the range you needed to get to the nearest charging station.

With the nearest charge point being potentially 30-40 miles away, that’s still a lot of pushing, making towing and charging a potentially better option. A video from 2016 showed that one driver of the Model S in Norway was able to have a Model X tow his Model S and record the gains in range:

Over 6.6 miles of towing, it regained 7.2kWh of power in the 60kW battery.

What Should You Do If Your Tesla Dies?

It seems that some things, while physically and technically possible, are still not advisable. It’s also not worth the potential damage to your expensive Tesla’s drivetrain experimenting to see if you can get it to work. Below is the proper procedure to follow if and when you find yourself stranded at the side of the road with no charging station in sight.

Step 1: Keep Calm

Remember that when your Tesla runs out of battery, it is absolutely not broken, nor is it even damaged. It has just run out of gas, steam, energy. Shutting off at that point is the car functioning normally, as any other automobile would.

Step 2: Summon a Flatbed Tow Truck

You can search for local services or call Tesla’s own Roadside Assistance service, which should be part of your ownership experience. In any case, you have to make it clear to the towing service that you are driving a Tesla and it absolutely must be towed by a flatbed truck. If they try to tell you that it’ll be okay to tow using a crew cab and winch, remind them that doing so will risk voiding your warranty under the section that describes improper transportation of your Tesla car.

If towing or other roadside assistance is included as part of your insurance, it’s a better idea to do the towing through them, too. If you use a non-approved service, it might even invalidate your insurance policy.

Step 3: Wait for the Truck, and then Activate “Transport Mode”

When the flatbed truck gets there, you have to set your car to “Transport Mode.” It’s here that you will see the warning about proper transport and not towing the Tesla with wheels on the ground. You’ll find this mode in the Service menu on your (giant) Tesla touchscreen. What this does is put the car in neutral so that it can be safely pulled up onto the truck.

Step 4: Confirm Your Destination

Finally, all you have to do is confirm with the tow truck driver where to take you. You likely have planned this in advance, but just in case, we recommend your destination be the nearest charging point, be it your home, a Tesla supercharging station, or anywhere else that can offer you additional range in your car. Job done.

Conclusion: When Push Comes to Shove

Regardless of how impractical it might be, it’s still a fascinating notion that you could push your car back to life, even if it’s only in theory. When you run out of gasoline or diesel fuel, you are done. No amount of pushing will restore the level of gasoline in the tank, unless you push the car all the way to the nearest gas station. You are faced with either walking to get gas, towing it to the nearest service station, or getting gas delivered to your location, which admittedly is actually a nice benefit of gasoline cars. You can’t “deliver” charging for a Tesla… not yet anyway.

It conjures up potential ideas for the increasingly electrified future of driving. Will we soon see giant mobile battery trucks arriving on site to give you an emergency 10-minute jolt in order to give you enough range to get to the nearest supercharging point? It may sound silly now, but so did the idea of an electric car that could cover 400+ miles only 20 years ago, and now that has become the reality in Tesla’s catalog.

When push comes to shove, it’s an electrifying topic.

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