My Urban Car

Driving past the Channel and the Alps to Italy

One way we can sharply cut our summer holiday carbon footprint is to forget flying and travel by car (especially electric cars) or take a train instead. So, what are biggest the obstacles to reaching Italy in a Tesla, other EV’s or any car? Also, what change in mindset does it require?

Our journey was from London to the Italian region of Tuscany near Siena. The direct route is around 1,100 miles each way and, adding in local journeys, the total trip was 2,632 miles or just over 4,200km. This article only deals with driving but do check out rail options from UK to Europe on the RailEurope website and apps. Using them in the past we found it quick and easy.. eg London to Zurich by train can get you there by 4.30pm the same day. If you book early trains can be competitive with regular economy flight costs.

Trip Planning – go your own way

Many people have commented to me that doing this journey in an electric car must have taken a lot of planning and it does. In fact, I’ve just tested how long it takes a 2019 Tesla Model 3 to calculate the exact route to Italy, including every charge stop required, and their duration. To plan the entire trip takes.. just under 9 seconds. So basically, the Tesla plans everything, probably in less time than most cars or phones would take to plan the route without charging stops. You will sometimes want to specify a particular route you would prefer and it does pay to do some homework… but you don’t have to.

While the Tesla may not pick the route you prefer, it’s easy to choose your own route by selecting somewhere on the way as a waypoint. Like the Gotthard pass or Gotthard or Mont Blanc tunnels to cross the Alps. You may want to this because there are places or friends or family you want to visit, or just because you want to take a more attractive route over a mountain pass.

Mindset when not flying

This is where your mindset comes in. Taking a plane, your holiday starts after you have got to the airport, got in the air, landed, got your luggage back, hired a car or taxi, and then finally reached your hotel or airbnb. If you travel by car or train the holiday starts with your first French meal travelling through stunning towns and scenery. This doesn’t mean the hours on autoroutes are all a joy!. Mostly you need to accept that your holiday will be a little shorter at your destination but enjoy the things you see on the journey.

Non Tesla trip planning

Non Tesla’s electric cars may take longer to plan routes and make good charge stop choices but luckily there are IOS & Android apps that will do this for you like A Better Route Planner also known as ABRP. This takes about 16 seconds in a test on my phone, Many Electric cars can display ABRP on your cars display via Apple Carplay or Android Auto, which may be better than some EV’s own navigation and “charge stop” planning. With some prior setting up, ABRP can often even get live data on how much charge your battery has.

Obstacles to plan for on a trip to Italy

There are 2 major obstacles today between Great Britain and Italy. Neither have anything to do with driving an electric car. In fact, both would be very familiar to citizens of the Roman Empire travelling between Londinium and Rome. Ancient Romans would probably argue we now have it easy with car ferries along with tunnels under the English Channel & the Alps including at the Gotthard and Mont Blanc. They have, but in peak summer holiday months, any day’s travel that involves crossing these obstacles can be subject to long delays that are completely beyond your control. You could arrive and find you pass the obstacle on schedule or 3, 6, or even nine hours later.

Tips

  1. any day that includes an Alps or English channel crossing should not include an overnight stay that can’t be reached after a 3-5 hr delay unless it is cancellable at short notice
  2. have a hotel booking app handy when on the road with your details filled in, in case you need to find a new hotel in a different region easily
  3. make sure the booking confirmation or payment is displayed before assuming you have a bed to drive to! App errors happen and an incomplete booking it not a booking at all!
  4. Remember that the routes google may suggest are fastest, may have bad peak time delay that makes them slower than a scenic route!

The 3 obstacles

1 Eurotunnel

Still our favourite way of crossing the channel and you expect it to be busy in the summer holidays. It is usually easier and quicker than taking ferries. It is also much lower in carbon impact. According to Eurotunnel itself their trains produce 73x less CO2 than putting the same car on a fossil fuel powered ferry.

  • 2kg CO2 per vehicle per crossing
  • 147kg CO2e per vehicle per crossing if you take a ferry

Even if you drive a petrol or filthy diesel you can still cut your CO2 this way. Nevertheless Eurotunnel has had major ”service disruptions” for every one of our 3 most recent journeys.

Outbound Eurotunnel

It’s pretty galling to get up before 5am for the recommended check-in time for a 9.06am train just to find chaos at Folkestone and a departure train “between 1200 and 1400”. Luckily, we were advised to head out before our train was called but still 3 hours late. Otherwise, it would have taken even longer.

Return using Flexi ticket

On the return leg we booked the much more expensive flexi plus ticket. The main advantages are

  • you can change dates easily although there is a surcharge moving from a non peak to a peak travel day. (We needed that)
  • you get priority boarding from when you arrive which saves time and gives flexibility if you may be early or late
  • There is a lounge with complimentary toilets, coffees, snacks and drinks. This can be viewed as either a welcome refreshment stop or a big delaying distraction for people who like free treats and packaging depending on your point of view.

Disadvantages of Flexi tickets

  • Cost
  • there are fully cancellable normal Eurotunnel tickets available
  • while you will get through to your train more quickly (if you resist the lure of the lounge), when the service grinds to a halt you are simply at the front of a stationary queue
  • the charging infrastructure for Electric cars at the flexi plus lounge is inadequate. At Calais in summer 2022 not only were there only 2 Tesla Superchargers but only one of these,1A, was actually working. This meant many Tesla’s with flexi plus tickets had to break off the endless M20 Brexit carpark roadworks to top up in Maidstone. By contrast, at the main Calais (and Folkestone) passenger terminals, there are 8 Superchargers giving better resilience and fewer queues. For non Tesla’s I think there are also just 2 chargers by the lounge.

2 Crossing the Alps

Image of 2 routes from London to Siena, South of Florence.
1 Via the Gotthard
2 Via the Mont Blanc

As you can see from the map above the most common routes to Tuscany and beyond in Italy are the same as far as Reims (on the A26 from Calais), then split into different options and join up again in Milan.

Looking at this more detailed picture we have four options shown for a summer alps crossing. Bear in mind outside of summer season alpine passes may be closed due to snow even if they will be open for longer each year as time goes by.

  • From the left to right we have the Mont Blanc tunnel route via Chamonix. This skips Switzerland entirely as it runs from France to Italy. It is a problematic route as detailed below
  • Next but not shown (it is where the letter “i” in Chamonix is shown) is the St Bernard Pass, also known as the Great St Bernard. Famous for the Swiss dogs that used to rescue travellers caught in the snow, there is a pretty good page of info and a video of the whole drive here. It connects the Swiss town of Martigny with the Italian town of Aosta. On the Swiss side it takes you past Montreux on Lake Geneva.
  • Next shown in blue is the Simplon pass (marked G). This joins Brig in Switzerland with Domodossola in Italy. There is a choice of a car train shuttle which seems frequent, quick and good value or a longer more scenic trip over the Simplon pass. Either way on the Swiss side you end up joining the same valley to Montreux. Details of the route over the pass including a video of the route are here.
  • Then, there is there is the route passing through waypoints A and B on the map that accesses the famous Gotthard pass. It passes through Interlaken and up the Furkapass, that was used as a location in the Bond film Goldfinger. Details here
  • Finally, there is the most commonly used route via the Gotthard and Basel and Lucerne. This provides either a route over the pass or a road tunnel under it. We took pass route.

Swiss Route – Gotthard tunnel / Pass

This Swiss route is the shortest route to Italy. Switzerland via Basel, Lucerne and the Gotthard is however not without issues. It has a big advantage though. If one of the 2 options is blocked. there is still an alternative.

  • On your outbound journey you need to buy a SFR 40 (2022 price) badge or Swiss Vignette and stick it on your car. It is valid for a calendar year plus the following January. It is available on the main customs post on the motorway route into Basel.
  • Do not allow Google or other navigation to reroute take you off this motorway to avoid traffic in Basel as many of the alternative border crossings are via unmanned smaller customs posts where you cannot purchase a vignette. If you cross into Switzerland without one, vignettes can only be bought at post offices once you are in Switzerland, which is likely to be a much more time consuming distraction than the traffic delay. Indeed if this happens to you, it may be quicker to cross back out of Switzerland and return to the motorway route.
  • By chance a friend of mine has discovered what may happen if you use Swiss motorways without a Vignette. Not only do you face being pulled over by Swiss customs when trying to leave the country but you will then have to buy the vignette and pay a penalty fine which is a multiple of the Vignette cost.
  • Swiss motorways are not very good with a lower 120kmh limit, very heavy congestion at peak times and mostly only 2 lanes. We still think it’s the best and best value route as the Vignette is cheaper than just the one way toll for the Mont Blanc tunnel alone
  • During the summer especially at weekends there are long queues in both directions to get into the Gotthard tunnel.
  • there is an alternative in summer peak months. Taking the passes over the Gotthard or the Furka pass nearby or both. We took the Gotthard pass to avoid the gridlocked motorway. is it quick? No but with 2 or 3 hour delays for the tunnel it is probably time neutral or a bit quicker. In an EV you do need to ensure you have enough charge to reach the top. Do use regen as much as your EV allows so you charge your battery on the way down.
  • Why not take the tunnel? Well, the passes with their dramatic scenery and windy roads are a pleasure to be enjoyed. Journey times are not quick but they are more predictable. They also bring a strange geeky joy in an EV. At the top of the Gotthard I was down to 14% battery but by using regen the Tesla had around 18% in Quinto in the valley on the Italian side. Bearing in mind this was 100km from my planned more major charge stop in Lugano, it seemed wise to top up to 38%. I then took at motorway for about an hour at 120kmh.. and passed the Lugano Supercharger as I still had about 35% charge! The whole stretch was a gentle downward incline! obviously on a return leg a Quinto stop will be needed.

Mont Blanc tunnel – A once in a lifetime experience!

This is an alternative suggested by google to the to the Swiss pass or tunnel routes. My title is more than a little ironic. One experience of the Mont Blanc tunnel has certainly put me off for the rest of my lifetime! The issues involve both the route and the tunnel.

The issues about the Mont Banc route

We used Mont Blanc tunnel on our return leg. Google navigation in the Tesla recommended the Swiss route while google maps on my phone recommended the Mont Blanc route (known as Monte Bianco in Italy). The Italian side of the Monte Bianco route was fairly quick with 130kmh limits most of the way from lake Garda except around Milan.

The French side which I naively expected to be similar was between 50kmh and 110kmh for hours, even beyond Geneva. Are the limits appropriate? Absolutely, although dual carriageway/ motorway much of the road has curves that you couldn’t drive safely at the usual 130kmh French motorway limits.

However, even when the roads become straighter, speed limits remain reduced because of the French motorway engineers paranoia about the dangers of long gradients, both up and downhill. It probably stems from brakes failing on old fashioned piston vehicles and the reduced limits are applied when there are long stretches of even very mild slope. In a modern electric car which maintains a steady speed up and down hill without any use of friction braking at all it seems faintly absurd. Essentially it forces vehicles that don’t struggle going uphill to travel uphill to exactly match speed with those that do struggle.

In summary then, Mont Blanc looks (on google maps) like it can promise faster progress than the Swiss routes via Basel or North of Geneva. In the end is likely to be slower and much more expensive once Italian and French motorway tolls are added to large tunnel fees.

Why the Mont Blanc tunnel itself is a bad idea for a UK Italy trip

The Mont Blanc tunnel is much older than I had realised, in fact, like me, it arrived in the world in 1965. Bearing this in mind we should probably make some allowances for its age. The reality is that, particularly in peak times the tunnel is unfit for purpose. so much so that as we sat in the unmoving queue of cars heading out to the Italian side of the tunnel, we really did assume there had been a major accident or roadworks blocking the tunnel. The queue was about three hours to move the mile or 2 to the tunnel entrance. This was not a particularly busy day, in fact it was not listed as a major traffic day on the tunnel website. This was utterly normal for a summer season day .

Getting into the tunnel is unbelievably slow for 4 reasons

  1. Design – the roughly 12km long tunnel is a single track road in each direction. The roads leading up to it on the Italian side are 2 lane motorways. An an additional road is allowed to merge into the queue. There is no mountain pass as an alternative to the tunnel.
  2. History – sadly there was a horrific accident in the tunnel in which a lorry carrying a dangerous cargo exploded causing the death of 39 people. When the tunnel eventually reopened the most stringent safety measures were applied. These included a 70 km/h speed limit that reduces to 50 km/h (or 31mph) near the exit to the tunnel on the French end.
  3. Extreme safety distances between vehicles – Cars in the tunnel are required to maintain a distance between 150 m and 300m.
    To give you an idea of how truly enormous these compulsory gaps between vehicles are, Nelsons column in Trafalgar square is 52 m tall. The mandatory gap in the tunnel is therefore between three and six Nelsons columns left on their side. Or as a single comparison you have to keep a distance roughly equivalent to the height of the London post office tower between you and the vehicle in front while travelling at about 30mph.
  4. Time delay between vehicles entering in addition a time delay is inserted to ensure there are large gaps between vehicles in the tunnel. As a result, with a single track road in each direction, you can only get a vehicle entering roughly every 30 seconds from each direction. This means that between each of the 4 toll booths collecting the one way toll of €48.80 (cash or card) ,if they were released equally (which they are not) then each toll booth would release one car into the tunnel only every two minutes or so.

In summary then if you have only about 360 people ahead of you in the queue for Mont Blanc tunnel.. that is a 3 hour wait. A 5 hour wait to enter the tunnel is quite possible too. It is expensive and will never be quick in high season, probably not in low season either.

These “regular like clockwork” delays seem not be factored into google maps calculations and at French Motorway speed 3 stationary hours will leave you 200 miles short of the hotel you booked to stay!

Cost of Mont Blanc route

Finally the Mont Blanc tunnel is very expensive. More than the Swiss Vignette which will cover travel to and from Italy. In summer 2022 the one way toll was Eur 48.80 and return would be Eur 60.80. In addition, to bypass Switzerland, involves further tolls charges on Italian and French motorways.

An unusual Tesla issue – While driving through the tunnel I had thought autopilot/FSD would be managing the drive. On my Tesla Model 3 however, something triggered a 40kmh speed limit reading which the car would not exceed when on autopilot. It did correctly read the 70kmh limit signs but immediately afterwards switched back to 40kmh even though there are no signs of any kind with a 40 or even a 4 on them.

In Italy

Charging

Tesla

Being Tesla, finding charges on the route is obviously a doddle. You can set your destination either in your car in UK, all by sharing your destination from inside your house by the Tesla app. The car will calculate every single charging stop and worked flawlessly. While there have been reports of queues at very busy Tesla superchargers heading south in France from Calais we encountered no such problems anywhere at all in France or Switzerland or Italy. In fact, the choice was so broad that we often skipped recommended slower 120kW & 150kW superchargers when we could. Many of the 250kW V3 superchargers are organised in the hubs of around up to 20 chargers.

There was one downside to this approach of sticking of to the quickest chargers. Some of these charging hubs, for example in Milan and Bologna, were little way off the motorway we were on. They didn’t look very far on a map, and they weren’t far, but Italian road engineers often manage to fit an extraordinary number of roundabouts and slow complex roads junctions in a very small space. So you can lose some of the faster charging speed just getting to these faster hubs.

Charging – for non Tesla electric cars

If you drive an electric car that is not a Tesla you may think you are reliant on the software your carmaker provides. Will it guide you to a 50kW charger when a faster 350kW hub is nearby? Using mobile phone apps via Apple carplay for EV navigation and charging is likely to be a better option because they are so much more capable and up to date.

Ionity has been the main non Tesla charging option and in Europe are apparently and thankfully more reliable in Europe than their UK charging network. Apps like Shell recharge also provide access to over 30,000 chargers across Europe with relative ease via many local networks. I only used one in Switzerland and on that occasion if worked perfectly.

Further good news is Tesla is in the middle of opening up its Superchargers to non Tesla electric cars. This has already happened in many countries including France. To access these, search for “Tesla Supercharger map” . Chargers open to non Tesla’s are shown. To access them simply download the Tesla phone app and follow instructions. Electric cars with charge ports on the rear left or front right are easiest to plug into. Some cars will struggle to plug in at some Superchargers but newer hubs will allow almost any charge port position to be connected. Opening up the Supercharger network will transform the experience for non Tesla owners on long trans European trips. If your non Tesla car gets discounted rates on Ionity, using Superchargers may be more expensive however.

Conclusion

Some silly EV bashing media shows and articles spun by the press suggest every electric car journey over 100 miles seems to end up in blind panic trying to find a very slow charger in a Morrisons or Tesco car park

In reality long journeys in modern EV’s are not that hard. If you have a real world range over 170 miles or more (250 miles would be ideal), and 10-80% charging in under 40 minutes (ideally under 30 minutes), then long trips should be pretty easy. Cars like the Vauxhall Corsa or brand new MG4 can manage this with ease.

David Nicholson

David Nicholson Is the founder of Rivergecko Ltd & MyUrbanCar which provide consultancy and advice for drivers and fleets to speed the transition from dirty fossil fuel transport to clean vehicles powered by renewable energy on land water and air.

The @MyUrbanCar twitter feed is a source of news & reviews of electric & plugin cars and vans in the UK.
The @rivergecko twitter feed & www.myurbancar.com websites bring news and opinion on cleantech transport including cars, vans, buses, trucks, shipping, rail & aviation as well as autonomous vehicles & renewable energy, air pollution & motor industry news.

David Nicholson has worked as an underwriter at Lloyd's of London since the 1980's. His interest in technology goes back many years including interactive mapping, apps, green tech, boats, solar and cars.

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