Tesla, fast charging and why it’s getting inconvenient for future EV drivers

If we’ve learned anything over the past couple months about Tesla, it’s that the company is concerned about range anxiety, particularly as it heads into the next couple years in which it’ll try to make a splash in the mass market. It opened the summer by demoing battery swapping technology in the Model S and most recently has aggressively pursued those with access to retail and commercial parking space in a quest to put 98 percent of U.S. drivers within range of a supercharger by the end of 2015.

Tesla is willing to foot the entire $100,000 to $175,000 bill of installing superchargers in public venues. The prospective “supercharger hosts” don’t have to do much. Tesla covers the costs, including electricity, construction and ongoing maintenance. All the real estate provider has to do is agree to allocate half the spots to Tesla only supercharging and the other half to all EVs. Presumably the hosts, which might be upscale restaurants or fancy malls, get the benefit of having Tesla owners accessing their services while they wait for their Model S to charge.

Tesla’s strong moves in not waiting for a charging network to materialize but instead creating an expansive one itself, points to an unprecedented trends in the automotive space. Tesla is an automaker that isn’t just producing a car but is involved in supplying energy to make that car go, a much more fully integrated enterprise.

Now that’s all well and good for Tesla, but what about the entire EV landscape? Tesla’s supercharger utilizes a proprietary plug, and although the stations its planning to build will have four to six EV spots servicing any vehicle, four will be dedicated to Tesla. Imagine going to the gas station, and four of the pumps were reserved for BMWs. When the automakers get a say in the powering of their EVs, they are choosing to create closed systems that exclude their competition.

Tesla isn’t the only one taking a proprietary approach. There’s been a long brewing conflict between the Japanese and American/European automakers about which plug to use for fast charging. It’s unresolved and we’re about to see a betamax vs. VHS showdown as the Japanese automakers have adopted CHAdeMO plugs while the likes of GM will use the SAE combo coupler. In a sign of how crazy this will get, the largest independent owner of charging stations Car Charging Group will install 48 CHAdeMO fast chargers in various cities by year end only to subsequently switch support to the SAE combo coupler.

I’ve never been a fan of proprietary plugs nor the land grab that is likely to occur among charging network startups. The consumer will lose here as will the overall EV industry as the world will get less convenient for road tripping EV drivers in need of a charge as drivers search for a station with their plug type. That will make it harder to sell EVs. Tesla’s recent moves to build out its own supercharging network is one more example of this trend.

Tesla’s behavior overall reminds me a lot of Apple in its attempt to create a closed ecosystem. While I suspect Tesla felt its designs and engineering were better than any fast charging standards out there, I also think the company liked being in control of its brand at every step of the way, including the charging one.

In the end what we need is a cost effective, easy to use charging system for all EV owners, particularly with fast charging because it can unlock the ability of EV owners to take roadtrips and hence address a major range anxiety concern. What we’re getting is a decade of standards fighting over the best fast charging plug and an inherently less convenient system for the consumer, which will damper the prospects of overall EV sales growth.

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Adam Lesser

Cleantech Curator Gigaom Research

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