Cleantech Market Intelligence
Tesla Test-Drive Controversy Misses the Big Picture
The past few weeks have seen a Wimbledon-worthy back and forth between EV advocates and detractors as they discussed the fairness of a disastrous road trip in a battery-powered Tesla Model S that was written about in the New York Times. The dispute centers on the writer’s account, his charging behavior during the truncated journey, and the protestations of Tesla and angry EV enthusiasts that he should have taken more care in reaching his destination without depleting the batteries. The Times’ public editor followed with a rather lame examination of the contretemps that did little to settle the basic dispute. This whole debate, though, ignores a much larger point about Tesla’s product strategy.
As Chelsea Sexton astutely pointed out on Wired.com, the idea of a road trip up and down the East Coast in the dead of winter that solely relies on two fast Tesla Supercharger stations unnecessarily stretches the vehicle’s capabilities. Most EV owners would know better than to even attempt the journey. But the larger question is: why would Tesla want to limit drivers of its luxury vehicle to only a few charging spots when hundreds of easily accessible public charging stations are available?
The Model S includes a proprietary cable for connecting with the Supercharger network. Tesla’s stations have faster charge rates (90 kW) than the industry standard rate of 50 kW for fast DC charging, which, as the company points out, provides an exclusive benefit to Tesla drivers.
However, all along the eastern seaboard are hundreds of charging stations that feature the industry standard SAE J1772 plug. Tesla requires that its customer pay $95 for an adapter to take advantage of this EV infrastructure, which personally I would want included if I’m paying $90,000 for a car. There was no mention of the Times reviewer having this adapter in his test car, which can provide approximately 20 miles of range in an hour of charging.
The route taken along I-95 during the road trip also includes two fast DC charging stations using the CHAdeMO connector, used by the Nissan LEAF and Mitsubishi i (many of the more than 130 CHAdeMO chargers now in the United States were paid for by taxpayers as part of the DOE’s EV Project). While these fast chargers are slower than Tesla’s Supercharger, they can provide about 150 miles of range in an hour, which is fast enough for most any EV road trip. Tesla has committed to installing 100 of its Superchargers across the United States during the next few years, many of which will be thousands of miles from the majority of Model S owners.
Tesla announced recently that it will soon offer a CHAdeMO adapter for customers in Japan, and will eventually bring it to the United States, but when I recently spoke with the company, they would not commit to a date. By the end of this year we’ll also likely see dozens of fast DC chargers scattered across the United States that use the SAE’s combo connector, which combines the slower J1772 technology with fast DC charging capability – but Tesla Model S owners won’t be able to power up at these locations, either.
Tesla Motors’ slogan is “Zero Compromises,” but the company’s strategy of exclusivity for charging betrays that ethos. Model S owners would be better served by greater charging flexibility than by the company’s spat with the New York Times.