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The 2012 Tesla Model S has long been heralded as ushering in the new era of an electric car society, but those predictions always seemed like pie-in-the-sky hyperbole. Until today.
Tesla has unveiled an innovative new charging infrastructure that is already up and running in six California locations, each charging at an impressive 100 kW – enough to fully charge a Tesla Model S with nearly 300 miles of range in less than thirty minutes. Tesla CEO Elon Musk introduced the new Supercharger stations at a press event on Monday, in this video:
The stations have been installed in Folsom, Gilroy, Harris Ranch, Tejon Ranch and Barstow. Tesla decided to position them around the large cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas to allow drivers to charge once they leave the metro areas. In fact, Motor Trend recently proved that the Tesla Model S can already complete the L.A. to Vegas trip without charging stops (video here), but we’re sure no one is going to complain about being able to use the air conditioning and not worry themselves to death about breaking down on the I-15.
The goal is reliable long-distance driving, and the single biggest thing that needed to improve to allow that to happen is improved infrastructure. Even the biggest of dreamers saw Tesla as a company in need of that, but not a company capable of providing that. The automaker, partnered with industry leader Solar City, plans to install six more by next year and spread nearly across the country by the end of 2013.
The technology in the Supercharger stations is quite remarkable. They are not powered by electricity plants that themselves produce pollution, but by nearby solar grids that collect power from the sun. The power is provided at no cost to the driver, bringing the dream of free and limitless vehicle power to reality. Pretty neat stuff.
Unfortunately for Tesla, the news doesn’t seem to have immediately eased their financial issues. A recent review of customer orders revealed more than 1,200 cancelations of Model S reservations (video here), which will need to be repaid. In addition, Tesla reported reduced revenue expectationsand Wall Street acted accordingly, sending the TSLA stock into a ten-percent fall.
Tesla faces an uphill climb to financial solvency, especially with growing political pressure in an election year and continued leniency from the Department of Energy that is likely to tighten in the future. Is the Supercharger infrastructure the answer to electric car concerns, or another big gamble that Tesla has committed to before it’s actually ready? Only time will tell.
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In response to an EV infrastructure that has basically failed to improve at all in the past five years, Tesla Motors will immediately triple the network of their Supercharger stations and could have hundreds of stations running by the end of 2013.
By the end of June, Tesla expects to have new locations in California, plus the Pacific Northwest, Texas, Illinois and Colorado and four locations on the East Coast for the first time. In six months they expect range to increase into Canada, plus Arizona, South Carolina and Georgia. By then, Tesla says, it will be possible to drive a Tesla Model S from New York to Los Angeles. The big news here is not the triumph for Tesla, but rather the utter embarrassment for every other automaker in the world.
Infrastructure and driving range have always been two of the largest obstacles in convincing the public to buy Electric Vehicles. They are two of the chief reasons, in fact, that automakers like the Big Three dragged their feet and refused to build EVs for many years. People have often looked at Tesla sideways, because no matter how good their cars are, it means nothing without infrastructure.
But where the auto industry saw disaster, Tesla saw opportunity. They are now the leaders in the largest EV infrastructure project ever, and will reap all of the benefits. The Tesla Supercharger systems work only for Tesla vehicles, meaning that owners of the Chevrolet Volt or Nissan Leaf or any other EV that isn’t the Tesla Model S can’t use them. Essentially, Tesla figured out how to open the country up to their customers while leaving the door shut on the competition.
This will hurt the auto industry much more than it helps Tesla, and it’s no one’s fault but their own. The prospect of building a nationwide EV infrastructure seems incredibly daunting – and true, we have to wait and see whether it actually all works out – but someone saw fit to make it possible. If GM or Honda or a Toyota-Ford partnership to build similar charging stations had begun five years ago, infrastructure and driving range wouldn’t even be an issue by now. Instead, they didn’t take initiative and are still reluctant to build electric cars. That’s just fine by Tesla.
Today’s announcement forces us to consider whether automakers that have griped about lack of infrastructure and technology costs couldn’t build electric cars, or simply wouldn’t.
It would appear to be the latter, and they’re paying for it now.
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Plenty of thought has gone into developing the current crop of electric vehicles, from the Tesla Model S to the Chevrolet Spark EV. Now, it’s time to concentrate more on the power infrastructure and on realistic needs of likely EV owners.
Because the driving range of nearly all EVs remains limited, they’re being consigned largely to commuter duty. That’s fine, but having a short-range EV then means owning an additional car for longer trips. For millions of cash-strapped families, buying and operating a single vehicle is tough enough. Budgets for the non-affluent simply won’t stretch that far.
Innovation is definitely needed, at least until true long-range EVs are developed and can be produced at affordable prices.
This year’s winner of the European Satellite Navigation Competition, the ebuggy mobility project, promises to be a “long-distance traffic solution for e-vehicles.” The competition was sponsored by the European Space Agency, European GNSS Agency, German Aerospace Centre, Nokia, and others.
The idea could hardly be simpler. An EV owner wishing to take a trip could start out with a full charge, but stop at one or more relay stations along the way. At the first one, the owner could hitch a battery trailer, fully charged, to the car and drive on. Trailers could be exchanged at regular intervals, dropping off the one with the depleted battery and then driving off towing one that’s fully charged.
When approaching one’s destination, the last ebuggy that was used may be dropped off at the final relay station. While at that destination, the EV can be driven using its own battery, charged in the customary way at local charging stations.
A satellite navigation system has been developed to manage such a trailer fleet of the future, monitoring and controlling movement of the battery trailers in “real time.”
Prototypes were constructed with the support of Germany’s Ministry of Economics and Technology and various partners, including Stuttgart University. At some point, ebuggy GmbH plans to develop the ebuggy battery trailer and relay-station network for series production. An international ebuggy network also is planned.
Practical? Perhaps. But a tiny bit tacky, too. Pulling a series of ebuggies would be rather like towing a little U-Haul trailer containing all your stuff.
Though feasible in Europe, this idea might not sell well in the U.S., with its longer distances between cities and points of interest. Yes, the network of public charging stations in the U.S. has been growing impressively, now thought to be topping 5,000 (Ed: The new Tesla Supercharging stations are particularly intriguing). But that leaves an awful lot of road miles across the country with no possible source for recharging.
Several trouble spots come to mind. If your EV has a range no greater than 75 miles or so, how do you arrange a trip if relay stations are, say, 50 miles apart? You’d have to stop at every single one and make an exchange. What if no ebuggies are available at a given station? You can’t just keep on driving. Such issues aren’t so crucial now, when only small numbers of EVs are in operation. But if and when that total grows appreciably, plenty of logistics questions pop into mind.
Still, ebuggy demonstrates the kind of thinking that just might make a difference, even if this particular proposal doesn’t really pan out on a widespread scale–or at all.
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