Tesla’s extensive Supercharger network is what sets the company apart from the electric-vehicle competition.
Other automakers have partnered with charging operations and have explored their own solutions, but only Tesla has a vast network in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia that’s fully integrated with the company’s vehicles.
Supercharging allows Tesla owners to be one-car EV customers; other charge systems favour EVs with less range that require backup vehicles for longer trips.
The Supercharger network has come under stress as Tesla has sold more vehicles, and the company has had to begin billing owners to use it.
I divide the electric-vehicle market into two camps: cars for people who want to go electric but aren’t relying on a single vehicle; and cars that can do it all, replacing gas-powered vehicles.
The former shaped the early days of the EV era we’re currently in. These were relatively short-range EVs that had to be recharged frequently, usually overnight or at garage close to an owner’s workplace. They weren’t vehicles that needed an extensive “fast” charging infrastructure because so-called Level 1 or Level 2 charging was an option, usually at the owner’s home.
The latter is exemplified by Tesla and the new generation of long-range EVs that all rely of DC fast charging to cover as much territory as gas-powered cars.
Tesla recognised from the get-go that fast charging would be key to building an overall Tesla ecosystem that would enable owners to replace their gas vehicles with electric ones.
In our EV testing at Business Insider, we often find that charging limitations are the biggest issue with electric cars. Tesla’s system isn’t without issues, but the company has invested in a pretty vast network of Supercharger locations that, if properly used, can eliminate the dreaded “range anxiety” that besets the competition.
Here’s a closer look at why Superchargers matter:
Tesla has always been dedicated to providing accessible, widespread fast-charging to its owners.
The justification is obvious: The world’s gas-powered fleet uses a vast system of refuelling stations, so Tesla had to offer something analogous.
In Tesla’s 16-year history, the “Supercharger” network has grown by leaps and bounds. The company now operates stations in North America …
… Europe and the Middle East …
… And in Asia. In total, there are over 1,800 Supercharger stations and more than 16,500 individual chargers.
In simple terms, Superchargers are Tesla’s gas stations, and the company’s batteries are its gas tanks.
Of course, Tesla has another business in energy storage that enables customers to mount a rechargeable battery on a wall to use for backup power.
All of Tesla’s vehicles have utilised DC fast charging, from the Original Roadster …
… to the Model 3 mass-market sedan.
The radical new Cybertruck …
… and even the mighty Tesla Semi truck would join the rest of the fleet in using the Supercharger network.
Tesla’s new Model Y crossover SUV should begin to hit the streets in significant numbers in 2020-21, putting additional stress on the Supercharger network and encouraging Tesla to keep expanding it.
Supercharging isn’t the only option in the landscape. I’ve been a frequent user of ChargePoint’s network, which is also extensive.
Here, for example, is a ChargePoint “Level 2” station in downtown Los Angeles that I used for re-juice a Lincoln Aviator hybrid.
And here’s the ChargePoint Level 2 station near my home in New Jersey. That’s a MINI Cooper SE Electric taking on some more electrons.
All EVs now come with an onboard charger.
These charger cables can be used to plug into good-old-fashioned 110-volt outlets, which “trickle” charge EVs at very slow rates. But you can also go into a 240-volt outlet, of the type that you might use for a washing machine, to speed things up a bit.
Neither of those options is anywhere near as speedy as DC fast charging, however.
“Speedy,” however, is a relative term. A 100 kilowatt-hour Tesla battery, even plugged into a Supercharger, could still require an hour to fully recharge. With a gas car, you’re back to 400 miles of range in five minutes.
Superchargers are often located in some sort of lonely places. But they operate 24/7 and are simple to use — the vehicle is in constant communication with the network.
Basically, you back into a stall space, plug in, and let the vehicle take over.
The Tesla infotainment screen provides you with monitoring of the Supercharger’s pace.
And you can also use the Tesla app to keep track of charging on a smartphone. This is useful if you want to leave the car to charge while you busy yourself with other things.
Tesla’s navigation system can plot a course from Supercharger to Supercharger, estimating battery levels and recharging times so that you don’t have to charge to 100% at every stop. The key here is to trust the technology.
Tesla’s stores also have Superchargers available. But the company does discourage owners from treating Superchargers like gas stations, asking that Superchargers be saved for incremental charging, rather than re-juicing to 100% every time.
The navigation system knows where all the Superchargers are located and provide real-time updates about the availability of chargers, including how many are in use.
Supercharging used to be a major Tesla perk; it was free for the life of ownership of a Tesla vehicle! But as Tesla has sold more cars, it’s had to cut back on that benefit. Supercharging now costs a bit. Tesla estimates that Supercharging is about half as expensive as burning gas.
After establishing the Supercharger network on major routes, the company began to install smaller units in places such as parking garages, to bring fast-charging to urbanites.
The company also wants to create “Megachargers” — large-scale locations, such as this one in Kettleman City, CA, where there are many stalls and also restaurant and shopping options.
As Tesla has sold more cars, the Supercharger network has come under some stress. Lines to get into an open stall have become more common.
If you have time, however, Superchargers aren’t the only option. Tesla has a range of partner sites where Level 2 charging is available.
It’s slower, but owners can use Level 2 to cover a charging gap and get enough juice to drive to the next closest Supercharger.
Many Tesla owners also install their own Level 2 chargers at home and recharge overnight.
Tesla has, on occasion, flirted with battery-swapping, going back to 2013. But the company hasn’t really committed to it in a significant way.
Tesla now offers a complete sustainable-energy lifestyle: electric vehicles that can be charged at home, with electricity gathered by Tesla Solar Roofs.
Building the Supercharger network hasn’t been cheap — each station likely costs a quarter-million dollars. But for Tesla, it’s made the difference between selling a solution to range anxiety and asking owners to figure it out for themselves.