Tesla’s Supercharger Network: How It Works In The Real World

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2012 Tesla Model S, brief test drive, New York City, July 2012

2012 Tesla Model S, brief test drive, New York City, July 2012

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Last week, Tesla Motors [NADAQ: TSLA] officially switched on the first six of its planned network of Supercharger charging stations. 

Designed to offer current -- and future -- Tesla models the ability to recharge at a rate of around 150 miles in just 30 minutes, Tesla’s Superchargers are the fastest electric car charging stations in the U.S. 

But what’s it like using the Tesla Supercharger network? 

And can you really travel hundreds of miles in a single day using the network?

With only six charging stations at his disposal, The New York Times’ Brad Berman was among the first to put Tesla’s superchargers to the test. Driving a 2012 Tesla Model S Signature Series from Lake Tahoe to Los Angeles, a trip of 531 miles, Berman made some interesting discoveries about Tesla’s first superchargers. 

Superchargers are cheap(er)

Because Tesla’s Supercharger design stacks 12 of the 10-kilowatt chargers found inside the 2012 Model S together to provide 120 kilowatts of peak charging power, the superchargers are cheaper to build than the Chademo charging stations used to rapid-charge cars like the 2012 Nissan Leaf and 2012 Mitsubishi i. 

In fact, according to Tesla’s chief technology officer J.B. Straubel, the cost of building a single supercharger is about half the cost of a single Chademo charging station. 

Not only that, but they’re easier and quicker to fix, since the charging modules are a standard Tesla part. 

Charge as much as you need, not to full

Like any battery pack, the rate at which charge is accepted depends on how full the battery pack is. 

As a battery pack’s charge increases, its rate of charge drops, meaning it takes longer to charge from 80 percent full to fully charged than it does from 40 to 80 percent. 

Because the 2012 Model S Signature Series has such a large battery pack, Berman found it more advantageous to only partially charge at each supercharger, waiting until the car had enough charge to reach the next supercharger rather than fully recharging at each stop. 

Supercharger locations aren’t glamorous...

When you’ve spent the best part of $100,000 on an electric car, there is perhaps an expectation that the places you’ll go to recharge will be geared toward a certain type of clientele, especially when Tesla has hinted as much in the past.

Not so, says Berman. 

Tesla Supercharger fast-charging system for electric cars

Tesla Supercharger fast-charging system for electric cars

Enlarge Photo

“Amenities near the Folsom charger, as with other Tesla network locations, were not an obvious match for the automaker’s upscale demographic,” Berman wrote. “Tesla identified places close to chain restaurants, restrooms, Wi-Fi and motels.”

In other words, while drivers of the 2012 Tesla Model S may be used to luxury inside their car, they will have to be content with lunch at a nearby McDonalds, Denny's or Wendy’s while their car charges. 

...But Supercharging works

But while Tesla Model S customers won’t get the pick of places to eat while their car charges, Berman’s trip proves Tesla’s Superchargers make it possible to cover the kind of distance in a single day that electric car owners could only dream of previously. 

As Berman pointed out after the trip was over, making the same trip in a gasoline car averaging 60 miles per hour, with a one-hour lunch stop and two, 15-minute rest stops, would have taken one hour less. 

Manage to eat while the Tesla charged however, and you’d be no slower than a gas car. 

An electric car long-distance trip which takes around the same time as a gasoline powered car? 

Are electric cars finally freed from the city?

Let us know your thoughts in the Comments below.


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Comments (23)
  1. Speaking of not-so-glamorous places for your Model S...

    Is that a homeless person's shopping cart behind the model S in your picture? Did it just work out that way or are you sending a message about the grossly unjust way that wealth is distributed in this country :).

    Personally, I think that Tesla has done something worthwhile here in pushing forward electric cars and "overcoming objections."

    I once had a marketing guy tell me that people "decide by objections." In other words, if you have a convincing answer to each objection, the customer will buy your product. Perhaps Tesla is close to that point. Well done.

  2. @John: As the photographer (and I asked that Tesla never again bring a brown car to an event, it's impossible to make look good in pix) ... not only is that a homeless person's shopping car, but I had to shoot around the squashed, dead, and decaying pigeon in the gutter right next to the front corner. LOL.

    In other words, "Welcome To NYC, Where We Eat The Wounded" ...

  3. Sorry, but I just had to give you some &%$# about that picture. Maybe a Tesla provided "glamor shot" is available for other articles :).

  4. Yes, people do decide by objections, vacations, cars, houses, wives. Or put another way, a process of elimination. Your product or service gets stuck on one of these points, the buzzer sounds, and it's on to the next one.

  5. As lithium battery technology evolves, longer mileages on a single charge will develop as will more rapid charging. Currently, in the laboratory, lithium ion batteries capable of charging in one tenth the time and holding at least three times the charge already exist. It's all a matter of time and the developments are occurring on so many fronts simultaneously, the oil companies will be helpless to stop the technology revolution .

  6. Miami to Orlando with a 60Kw pack would only need one 30 min stop. Now in my gas car I make just one 30 min stop in which I usually top off anyway! Now to see if they can get that charge down to 5 min...
    What is the cost for using this service? I have yet to see numbers in relation to charging at home.Are we talking about a 10% increase in cost per Kw? or more?

  7. Access to all super chargers are free for the life of the car (owner transferable!). The 85 kWh pack has the super charger hardware/software included while for the 60 kWh pack it is a $2k upgrade. Talk about a plus for resale :)

  8. If this is indeed successful, the next obstacle is to build enough charging stations to sustain the increased number of users, as the wait time alone will kill the comparison with gas users.

  9. Keep in mind, these are for road trips. You don't need as many as you do for gas stations because the number of Tesla's are limited and people actually don't take long trips that often.

    From the reporting I've read, most of these stations will have 4-6 charging spots, but some will have more (in fact I believe that one existing location has 8).

    Most of the existing locations have additional parking spaces and electrical connections set up to install more chargers, so obviously Tesla expects to expand these sites in the future.

  10. They said in the announcement that these would all be solar-powered to mitigate the effect of coal-fired electricity. Is that still on? Any idea if they store the energy locally, or are they just drawing from the grid?

  11. Word is that it will vary over time (i.e. solar may come later at many sites) but they do plan on installing batteries at all locations (source: http://green.autoblog.com/2012/09/26/superchargers-will-only-work-on-model-s-for-now-and-every-futu/).

    I can't think of a batter use for all the aging Model S batteries they will be getting on down the road though battery buy pack programs (Source: Tesla VP George Blankenship mentions "pre-paid battery replacement options" here: http://www.teslamotorsclub.com/showthread.php/10375-Supercharging-option-pricing-60-kWh-pack-fee-discussion/page11?p=193393&viewfull=1#post193393).

  12. I agree about the eventual re-use for old batteries. However, those batteries are projected to be in use for more than a decade and the SuperChargers are being built right now. So in the mean time Tesla will need to pony up cash for new batteries if they want to include them in their charging system.

  13. They don't all have solar right now, but the expectation is that most will. It's possible that the sites with solar produce enough electricity to offset the ones without.

    There is conflicting info about whether the sites will eventually have batteries to mitigate demand charges. However surplus solar power is sold to the utility.

  14. Store some locally, but otherwise push to or draw from the grid. The concept is to, on balance, generate more electricity via solar than use. I can't help but think there will be high utilization periods, though.

  15. Every station will be hooked to the grid. The Solar panels will not generally be responsible for charging the car directly. Rather they will sell energy back to the utility, and that money is used to offset the cost of charging the vehicles.

    In the case of batteries, if they are deployed they will keep themselves topped off (from grid or solar) and they will be used to smooth out how much energy is being drawn from the grid during supercharging to avoid demand charges.

    Basically if you pull energy out of the grid at a high rate, there is a point where the utility will hit you with extra charges (making your electricity more expensive). By drawing down from a battery (and solar if its available) you can avoid the high peak loads.

  16. "the rate at which charge is accepted depends on how full the battery pack is. "

    That is a KEY point that many EV owners and fan seem to "forget"...

    The last 20-30% take about 2x to 3x longer than the first 50-60% on Li ion batteries...

  17. Whats so "KEY" about it? The SuperCharger network is going to have chargers spaced ~150 miles apart. At highway speeds you get ~230 miles of range in the Model S which means you only need to charge ~65% of your battery to get to the next charger.

    You'd need to be particularly foolish to think it necessary to top off at every charging station. Personally, I attempt to avoid being foolish when charging.

  18. Well, the "key" is that those Tesla owners don't "hog" those charging stations for a "full charge" so other owners can use it. I imagine those charging stations will be busy on a holiday weekend...

  19. As with mass transit stops and I think you'll see the options around the charging locations improve. I'm sure you'll soon see a more upscale coffee and snack shop open close to these locations within a few months, just to cater for all the bloggers.

  20. @John,
    I think the "brown car" is actually what Tesla is calling "Green." Drats, when I saw this at the "Get Amped Tour" I was totally dismayed, as I had hoped to spec that "green," but expected a more brilliant/emerald shading.

    And the "Folksom" site is actually "Folsom" and is about 15 miles from our home to the east. We will be in that area looking at possible relocation homes later this afternoon. That site, by the way, is about 50 meters from one of the best Mexican restaurants in the area, so killing some time getting recharged would only mean an extra serving of "chips and salsa!"

  21. @George: I didn't ask the name of the color, but there's no green in it--it's brown! At least to my eyes.

    Sorry about "Folksom" LOL. I'll fix that.

  22. I just think of that shade as......ugly.

  23. I think it looks amazing, just not in that setting.

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