One of the key barriers to most mainstream electric vehicles (EVs) today is their limited range, and with public charging speeds — even using “DC fast charging” — still taking quite a bit longer than a quick stop at the gas station, medium- and long-distance trips can be cumbersome. Unfortunately, most EV manufacturers seem to miss just how critical public EV charging is, and as such, they tend to leave buyers out in the cold when it comes to charging for medium- and long-distance driving.
On the flip side, there is one manufacturer that has unlocked a combination of longer range EVs and paired them with extremely fast “Level 4” ~135 kW DC fast charging, also known as Supercharging. Tesla’s approach to EVs has been unique from the start, pulling aces of insight out of a magic hat that had previously eluded auto manufacturers, and it is still the sole owner of many of those aces. Founding leadership understood the criticality of a handful of well spaced fast chargers and built them into the business plan upfront.
Before I dive in too deep, I want to ground the discussion in some of my background. I started off my eco-journey with a 1997 Trans Am with a V8 and 305 horsepower, which achieved 17 miles per gallon at best. Because of the mounting cost of speeding tickets paired with barely enough sense to realize that I would likely loose my license along with my money if I continued driving it, I sensibly traded it in for a lightly used Ford Focus ZX3, which I assumed would get better fuel economy and come with the feature of limited acceleration.
The Focus achieved 23 miles per gallon on a good day, which was disappointing considering the engine displacement was less than half that of its predecessor. It served me for many years until the two-door limitation proved to be a sufficient barrier to carseats that my wife and I opted to upgrade to a car with 4 doors and added our Toyota Prius, which achieved 50 miles per gallon. I really had a mind to focus on the miles per gallon and it was nice to finally be in an efficient vehicle that was also good for the environment. After putting in a good run, I recently executed an almost straight trade for a nearly-new Nissan Leaf.
Having underestimated our use of the extended range of the Prius, the Leaf proved to be insufficient as our second vehicle — with our regular trips down to see in-laws in Los Angeles (78 miles away), Orange County (128 miles), and up into the mountains to hike making marital tensions escalate beyond what I was willing to tolerate. Finally, I recently traded the Leaf in for a Tesla Model S (which was not, unfortunately, a straight trade for the Leaf).
With all of those gasmobiles and hybrids, I drove them like no tomorrow. I took the Focus up to Canada and back… just for fun. I drove my Trans Am to central California, randomly showing up at friends houses on a Saturday morning, and frequently just drove… and chose a destination later. I love to drive and I know many people who enjoy just getting out there on the road and exploring.
That same spirit is what made the proposition of buying a Tesla in Ohio (2600 miles / 4200 kilometers away) and driving it home an intriguing prospect. It also opened my eyes to another aspect of the Tesla ecosystem that is just amazing: Superchargers unlock the ability to go on a road trip. In a Tesla with 260 miles of range, it is easy to drive 2 hours to the next Supercharger, stop for 30 minutes, then hit the road again for another 2 hours. It’s simple.
Supercharging stops are built into the navigation, which works well the vast majority of the time, and you just get to drive. On top of that, the driving is not physically fatiguing like it is in a gasmobile. This is something I had not expected at all because our previous EVs required stops at least every hour to charge, so there never was a 2 or 3 hour period of driving.
In the Tesla, that’s easy to do and it just didn’t tire me out. I didn’t think too much of it, but on my first full day of driving, I drove almost constantly from 5:30 am until 6:30 am the next day — of which, ~16 hours were spent in the car driving. I slept maybe a total of 3 hours… maybe. In sharing my story, I found that I was not alone and that many EV drivers find that driving is less draining than driving gasmobiles… which is fantastic! Yet another noticeable, value-add benefit of driving EVs. 🙂
The Tesla Supercharging network is already pretty fantastic in the US, across much of Europe, and even in Eastern Asia, but Tesla is not stopping there. Tesla is adding roughly 1 charging station per day through 2016, and likely beyond. With a plan to increase production 10x vs 2015 levels (from ~50k/year to ~500k/year) by 2020 and no plans to start charging to charge (did I mention that Supercharging is free?!?), Tesla will need an equally scaled up number of charging stations to support the ever-increasing fleet.
On top of those improvements, Tesla is looking to the future and working to increase the speed of Supercharging, having already upgraded a handful of Supercharging stations to use next-generation, liquid-cooled lines that will support even higher charging speeds or charge at current speeds at lower temperatures.
As the number of Teslas roaming the highways continues to increase, pain points are surfacing as events conspire against the current infrastructure. One charger at a key junction between coastal cities of California and the Central Valley was particularly slammed over the recent Christmas holiday, with a line of Teslas backed up waiting to charge.
What the future holds for Superchargers is anyone’s guess, though a recent Reddit thread speculated that a combination of autonomous driving Teslas and automatic chargers might allow Tesla to leverage the knowledge of the fleet to auto-queue and then auto-charge Teslas to optimize Supercharging, which seems within the realm of feasibility for Elon and crew.