Tesla Superchargers vs … Ugh

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First of all, let me say that if anyone else creates a superfast charging network anything close to Tesla’s, I’ll be one of the first people to cheer it on and I may cheer it more loudly and broadly than anyone else. My goal is to stimulate the transition to zero-emissions transport as quickly as possibly, not to loyally attach my dreams to one company over every other one because I like the logo. Companies that do good stuff deserve to get praised and rewarded.

But the fact of the matter is, at the moment and for the foreseeable future, Tesla is the only player in its league when it comes to charging. As anyone who’s driven an electric car knows, Tesla’s Supercharger network makes the eyes drool and the brain melt.

However, as much as this is mentioned in passing and understood extremely well by Tesla drivers, I don’t think we’ve ever really spelled out in one place all the reasons why Tesla’s charging network is so different from other EV charging networks. Having to deal with a charging mini-disaster this week, this crossed my mind and inspired me to write this article.

The point here is not to bash the alternatives, but to explain what exactly needs to be done to make a charging network or just individual charging stations adequate for EV drivers. Also, there’s a big fundamental issue here that makes comparing Tesla charging options with non-Tesla charging options unfair: Tesla is both an electric car company and a charging station company (among other things), whereas every other charging station company doesn’t also produce electric cars. So, other charging station companies are limited in some significant ways by the electric cars on the market.

1. Location

Charging stations should be located in places that match your transportation and charging needs. Many non-Tesla stations are awkwardly located at auto dealerships, in odd corners of the city, or in other not super useful locations. Of course, some are also located at shopping centers, workplaces, and along popular travel routes, but locations are generally “hit or miss” for non-Tesla charging stations.

Tesla’s Supercharging stations, on the other hand, are strategically located along the most common travel routes and right off of the highway in order to enable convenient long-distance travel. Tesla’s “destination chargers,” meanwhile, are more abundant and located at … destinations (especially hotels).

This combo is aimed at filling the gap for people who presumably have a home charging option. It would be super awesome if Tesla’s network weaved into cities more in order to enable EV life for people without home charging, so it’s not as if Tesla’s proprietary charging options are perfect, but considering the challenges of choosing where to grow first, the Tesla charging station rollout makes complete sense. Tesla has enabled a great deal of long-distance transport for its drivers at an unmatched level of convenience. Other fast charging + destination charging options? Not so much. However, note that certain regions and smaller networks do have a similar fast-charging approach as Tesla and offer EV drivers great options — such as Fastned in the Netherlands (and creeping into neighboring countries) and GreenWay in Slovakia (and soon Poland).

Survey results from our new EV report. Responses came from over 2,000 EV drivers across 26 European countries, 49 of 50 US states, and 9 Canadian provinces. Responses were segmented according to region — North America vs Europe — and type of electric car — plug-in hybrid vs Tesla vs non-Tesla fully electric car.

2. Access

Access is another critical matter for easy EV life, and it’s unfortunately one where many EV charging options fail. Many charging stations are locked behind gates and other secured parking areas where it can be a royal pain in the butt (or just a small pain) to charge your car. Sometimes, the locked parking areas mean you can’t get in to charge at all.

I’ve already run into the problem of gated charging areas a few times, and I’ve heard plenty of complaints about such inaccessible charging stations in the US as well. Looking at data from our 2017 EV driver report, you can see that Tesla drivers are more satisfied with the accessibility of charging stations than non-Tesla EV drivers.

Survey results from our new EV report. Responses came from over 2,000 EV drivers across 26 European countries, 49 of 50 US states, and 9 Canadian provinces. Responses were segmented according to region — North America vs Europe — and type of electric car — plug-in hybrid vs Tesla vs non-Tesla fully electric car.

Of course, early adopters may be willing to scale these hurdles, deal with the hassle of repeatedly getting gates unlocked, have backup plans in place in case a charging station is inaccessible, and spend the extra time needed to learn their options and which stations are easier to use than not. But the mainstream market wouldn’t put up with such issues. Charging inaccessibility is a great way to drive away potential buyers.

3. Number of Stalls

Accessibility isn’t just about getting to where a charging station is located, by the way. The parking spots next to the chargers have to be free as well. Tesla often locates and designs its stations in a way that deters anyone else parking there. Many non-Tesla charging stations, unfortunately, are not planned so well and result in many a gas car parking in a spot meant for an electric car to charge. Whether a spot is blocked by a gas car or another electric car, though, there’s one key way to avoid a common disaster (the disaster of an EV driver coming to a charging station and finding that they can’t use it because someone else is charging or blocking the charging ports). That key solution is: include a lot of charging stalls at the station.

Numerous charging stalls make it more obvious that this area is meant for charging and make it much, much less likely that an EV driver will arrive at the station and not be able to charge. Even if there’s a rare occurrence of no spots being available, with a lot of stalls, someone should be moving out soon and opening up a free spot.

Unfortunately, it’s very rare to find a non-Tesla charging station with more than a few charging stalls. Tesla’s always have several and some even have 10+.

It’s hard to really explain how important of a factor this is for an EV driver … but it may well be the most important item on this whole list.

It was great charging at this charging station the first time. It was not cool the second time when it was in use and I lost one hour of my time.

4. Visibility

Ugh … I shudder to think at how many EV charging stations are out there with horrible and nearly invisible design. Even if you are looking for a specific charging station you’ve found on a map, it can take what seems like ages to actually find the station because of how invisible it is.

Seriously, if you’re in the business, MAKE YOUR CHARGING STATIONS LOUD — visible, colorful, well signed, unique, attractive. Tesla nails this. Fastned nails this. But I think the vast majority of EV charging stations are on the “F” portion of the grading scale.

5. Beauty

Beauty is part of the item above, but it deserves an entire section of its own. People are attracted to beauty, value beauty, buy into beauty. To raise the status of electric cars, attract people to electric cars, and make electric car adopters feel better about their new lifestyles, EV charging stations should be beautiful. Period.

6. Reliability

Reliability is another item that’s a bit related to the issues of accessibility and number of stalls — basically, these three factors are all about the chance of getting to a charging station and then actually being able to charge.

Some charging stations are down 50% of the time, some are never down. Reliability of different types of charging stations and different charging networks varies, of course. Yet again, however, Tesla is a leader.

Survey results from our new EV report. Responses came from over 2,000 EV drivers across 26 European countries, 49 of 50 US states, and 9 Canadian provinces. Responses were segmented according to region — North America vs Europe — and type of electric car — plug-in hybrid vs Tesla vs non-Tesla fully electric car.

I’m not sure about the reliability of all the different charging networks out there, but every study I’ve seen on the matter has shown that Tesla’s Superchargers are more reliable than other charging stations. Our own survey of over 2,000 EV drivers across 28 countries (26 European countries, 49 of 50 US states, and most Canadian provinces) similarly showed that Tesla drivers were much more likely to say that the charging stations they used were reliable. Of course, most of those drivers use more than just Tesla charging stations, so the fact that there’s a notable difference despite this presumably broad use is an even bigger sign of the difference between the networks.

In my limited time driving EVs, I’ve arrived at several charging stations that didn’t work. For some reason or another, they were out of order. It’s not a fun experience to land in such a discovery.

7. Speed

Charging station power/output/speed is something we’ve commented on a great deal. It’s something that comes up repeatedly — daily. It comes up so much because 1) it’s such an important matter for road trips in an electric car and 2) there’s so much variation in the charging stations on the market.

A non-Tesla “fast charger” has historically maxed out at 50 kW, and many are even down at 25 kW. Unless you’re willing to increase your travel time by ~50%, charging at 50 kW on a road trip doesn’t really cut it. And 25 kW is, well, not fast charging.

Tesla’s 120 kW Supercharging (superfast charging) is actually still not 100% convenient or comparable to gas cars for road trips, but it’s close (and home charging surely makes a Tesla more convenient than a gas car in net). Any company wanting to sell an electric car to the masses has to have a base road trip charging rate of 120 kW, but no other automaker has risen to that level yet.

Some charging networks are headed toward a max of 350 kW. Some automakers are talking about having cars that can charge at this rate … eventually. Until then, this is potentially the biggest drawback of non-Tesla charging.

8. Network

One station that can charge at 5000 kW is not so useful. Thousands of stations that can charge at 100 kW are far more useful. Thousands of superfast charging stations spread out strategically along core travel routes are the way to go.

As noted above, charging stations along long-distance travel routes need to offer superfast charging, should be located conveniently off of the highway, and should be accessible, but they also need to be abundant and spread out in such a way that you are “never” too far from a station. Like this (in the Netherlands):

Or this:

At the moment, many fast chargers are not planned so holistically and thoroughly. When you’re considering getting an electric car, you may have an idea in mind where you’ll drive it and can then scope out the charging options. But you also want to be able to drive it in any direction you like if you ever need or want to. You don’t want a dead zone to the northwest if you end up needing to drive far northwest.

You can’t really knock other EV charging networks for not having the capital to extend themselves across continents. But from a user’s perspective, being able to drive a Tesla across Europe, North America, etc., is a huge bonus point that doesn’t go unnoticed by many EV early adopters.

9. Support

Little discussed but still important, you surely want a charging station you plan to rely on to have solid support. I recently had my charging cord locked into a charging station for some reason. Luckily, I got a hold of support immediately. Not so luckily, it was going to take a technician 3 hours to get to me. The “good” news: After an hour and a half or so, the charging station unlocked my cord.

I’ve visited Fastned headquarters in Amsterdam a couple of times. In the early days, they had tech support watching computer monitors that were closely watching charging stations around the country and support staff could proactively call a customer if they say they were having a charging problem (often from trying to use the wrong type of charging port). Even if they are now too busy for such proactive support, they are always available, highly responsive, and can get technicians out quickly. This should be the norm.

I’m not fully sure what Tesla offers on the support front. I was involved in one situation (as passenger) where there was an issue at a Supercharging station. The driver called up support and we fairly quickly found out what the issue was and worked our way out of trouble. It’s hard to imagine a dramatic problem at a Supercharger (see point #6), but if anyone knows what Tesla support is like if the company can’t solve your problem remotely, I’d be happy to learn more.

Unfortunately, from what I’ve read previously (and experienced in one case), support is not always so quick to solve a major issue on many other networks, one reason why reliability is more of an issue on other networks. However, I haven’t seen any comprehensive evaluations (or even shallow evaluations) of EV charging support systems for different charging stations and networks. Let us know if you have!

10. Navigation

Navigation to charging stations is something I almost forgot to include, despite recently writing an article just about this. Tesla has a nifty feature that navigates you to Superchargers on long trips to make sure you don’t run out of charge. If you want to drive from Florida to Alaska, Tesla will tell you which Superchargers to stop at, how much battery capacity you’ll have when you get there, and how long you should charge to get to your next Supercharger or destination without running out of juice. Furthermore, if things change quickly while you’re driving and you are running out of capacity too fast, Tesla will even advise you to slow down to make sure you make it to your Supercharger with as few sweat beads on your forehead as possible. The system is amazing. Tesla is the only one that provides something like this. Every EV driver should be able to benefit from such a system.

Sure, if you’ve never had this before, it may seem fine to treat it as a luxury, but once you’ve used it, man, it’s hard to imagine giving it up.

I’m sure I missed some points and could have expounded on some of these matters much further. If you have extra comments, just drop them in the comments below to carry on the conversation!

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

Zachary Shahan has 7400 posts and counting. See all posts by Zachary Shahan