One of the strengths of Tesla that we share over and over again is the Supercharging network, as it enables Tesla owners to drive across the country on the most robust, integrated network of chargers in existence at very high charging speeds.
The downside of Tesla building this network out on its own is that Supercharging is another frequent touchpoint with customers that is extremely dynamic, with unpredictable peaks and valleys in utilization and a high amount of technical complexity — Supercharging stations oftentimes pull more power than the buildings they are installed near, and are seeing consistent utilization, meaning they are prone to wear. Managing the customer Supercharging experience is quickly becoming a key service deliverable for Tesla.
To date, the system appears to be performing well and is generally meeting the needs of customers, but cracks in the perfect Tesla Supercharging model are surfacing as the complexity of managing a distributed system of thousands of cutting-edge chargers plays out.
While Zach was in town for our CleanTechnica tour of Southern California, we had the fortune of seeing this complexity play out firsthand with our very own Supercharging snafu. We had spent the day down at Formula E in Long Beach and stopped at the Supercharger in Oxnard, California, for a late-night top-up and some vegan Gardein wings, as we were heading up to Tesla Santa Barbara the next morning.
As we pulled into the Supercharging station, I noticed that it was nearly full of cars, which is unusual for this location. I wondered if something was wrong, but more than that, was thankful that there was an open bay.
After plugging in, I checked the display in the car to ensure the charging started with no issues. Given the investment of time that goes into charging, I have made this a best practice, as a simple communication issue between the charger and the car can prevent charging from starting and can easily be fixed … if you notice.
This time, I noticed that the current (amps) flowing into the car were fluctuating wildly, swinging from 0–80 amps, up and down and all over the place. After watching for a few minutes, I confirmed that the car was actually charging, but at a rate that wasn’t going to do much for us in the time we had planned. It had been a long day at Formula E and we were eager to get some rest but needed to top up the Tesla before calling it a night.
We went to grab a snack. All the while, I monitored the charging session from my phone. The charging rate was still fluctuating and it was obvious something was wrong, so we returned to the car and, after some debate, called Tesla. The technician shared that there was a known issue with the charging stations at this location and that maintenance was scheduled for April 5th … 3 days later. The technician we spoke with shared that two of the stations (on 2 different circuits) were still functioning properly, so we moved the car to one of the functioning locations.
The big miss here is communication. There were no signs posted on or around the Superchargers indicating an issue, and nothing was shared on the in-car display or on the Tesla app. Thankfully, we had time to make the call to Tesla, to find a working station, and to stay twice as long to fill up, but this could easily have been a bigger issue if we were on a tighter schedule. Beyond just being snubbed ourselves, there were at least a dozen other drivers who had similarly missed out on charging in the short time we were there … and it was going to be down for another couple of days.
Communicating the issue obviously doesn’t fix the issue, but it at least gives people options. If we knew the charger wasn’t working, we could have stopped to eat near a level 2 charging station or another Supercharger, but by the time we were there and realized it wasn’t charging, it was an hour later and getting a bit too late to linger much longer.
Beyond communication, this issue speaks to the importance of redundancy for Level 4 charging infrastructure as more and more drivers start depending on these stations as key links in the charging chain to get them where they need to go. For ICE cars, the current network of gas stations is so distributed and redundant that one station being down is rarely an issue, but charging infrastructure definitely isn’t at or near that level yet … but the sooner we start thinking and talking about what the charging infrastructure of the future should look like, the sooner we’ll be able to start moving in the right direction.
Adding redundancy to individual Supercharging stations could be an option but depends heavily on availability of sufficient infrastructure … and what the issues are that are likely to cause problems with charging.
Whatever the solution ends up looking like, I’m hopeful that the long-awaited Supercharging status being added to the in-car display will alleviate some of these communication issue and provide a much-needed channel for real-time status and availability updates directly to customers.
Images by Kyle Field
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