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Electric Avenue

Why Tesla's Free Electric Vehicle Superchargers Are A Big Deal (And Why They Aren't)

You’ll be able to charge your car gratis, in just 30 minutes—but only if you’re driving a new model Tesla.

One of the biggest thorns in the electric vehicle industry’s side has been how long it takes to charge up EVs for long trips, and how few charging stations there are to begin with. It’s not a problem if you’re just going for a quick jaunt around town, especially if you have a charger in your home, but taking a long-distance road trip is a little more daunting.

Tesla made big waves in the EV world this week when it announced its Supercharger network—a network of six ultra-quick charging stations in California that are powered entirely by solar energy, courtesy of a partnership with SolarCity (Tesla CEO Elon Musk is the chairman). The stations—faster than any other charging stations in existence, according to Tesla—can provide up to 100 kW (in the future, up to 120 kW) of power to EVs, juicing them up in 30 minutes with enough power to drive for three hours. It’s no five-minute trip to the gas station, but it’s getting closer. And unlike a $40-plus trip to get gas, Tesla’s superchargers offer power for free.

There’s just one big issue for most EV drivers: the superchargers are only compatible with the Tesla Model S and future Tesla vehicles. The Tesla Roadster, and other automakers’ EVs, wouldn’t be able to deal with all the power that the Supercharger dispenses.

Musk said in a statement: "Tesla’s Supercharger network is a game changer for electric vehicles, providing long distance travel that has a level of convenience equivalent to gasoline cars for all practical purposes. However, by making electric long-distance travel at no cost, an impossibility for gasoline cars, Tesla is demonstrating just how fundamentally better electric transport can be."

I’ve test-driven the Model S and can attest to its greatness as a vehicle. And it’s hard to beat free quick charging. But limiting the superchargers to Tesla vehicles only serves to fragment the larger EV charging network—one that will have to be cohesive and easy for everyone to access if EVs are ever really going to take off.

As mentioned previously, Tesla’s supercharger unleashes too much power for other EVs to take, so there is a legitimate reason for the company to keep the stations closed off to other vehicles. It’s unclear whether Tesla would open up the stations even when automakers release EVs that can handle the quick charging. There have been some growing pains, but other companies are working together on quick-charging standards that work across vehicle brands.

Tesla’s supercharger network will expand next year to high-traffic areas across the U.S. For EV enthusiasts that don’t have plans to buy a Tesla, there are some quick-charging options—in particular, the West Coast Electric Highway (currently under construction) will have quick-chargers available every 25 miles for a 160-mile stretch of Oregon’s Interstate 5. Each station will have a Level 3 charger that takes 20 to 25 minutes to juice up a Nissan Leaf to 80% percent charge. Slower level 2 chargers will also be available for EVs that lack quick-charging capability. It’s a start, but Tesla’s supercharger is still twice as powerful (meaning it provides twice as much driving range for the same amount of charge time) as the level 3 chargers.