Tesla's charging problem

February 12, 2013: 10:01 AM ET

The carmaker has an amazing product - does it also have to build the infrastructure for it?

By Ryan Bradley, senior editor

130211041343-tesla-model-s-gallery-horizontalFORTUNE -- On Monday, the CEO of a young company took to Twitter to lambast the New York Times for criticizing his product. At first glance the controversy seems like nothing new -- executives often claim reporters are full of it when they disagree with what's published. But this kerfuffle has some fresh twists: the CEO was Elon Musk, co-creator of PayPal and the man behind electric car-maker Tesla and commercial rocket outfit SpaceX  -- a visionary inventor who is smart enough and rich enough to make his visions reality. In accusing the Times' John M. Broder of not accurately portraying his recent trip in the Model S, he cited data that Tesla had on hand -- the car has about 30 built-in computers logging its every move. And the trip itself, from Washington D.C. to Manhattan, was plagued by the kind of problems that champions of electric vehicles fear most: Charging was inconvenient, and the range of the car wasn't accurate, turning what should have been a painless cruise into a hapless misadventure.

Tesla's (TSLA) stock began sinking after the Times article posted, then Musk cried false on Twitter, then the stock crept up a bit. But neither John M. Broder nor Elon Musk have addressed the larger issue: Why is Tesla building charging stations? Shouldn't that be someone else's job?

This question has been nagging at me for a while now, because I also drove a Model S -- albeit through much more pleasant conditions than Mr. Broder -- and was disappointed by both the location of Tesla's Supercharge stations and the slow rate of recharge in every other publicly available charge port. When I drove the Model S, the purpose wasn't simply to travel from point A (Los Angeles) to point B (San Francisco). The great promise of a car like the Tesla Model S is that it is an electric vehicle without compromise: a luxury sports car that handles better, accelerates quicker, and is priced on par with a lot of other luxury sports cars (about $50,000-$90,000). And you can drive it, really drive it, quite far on a full charge. So why not drive on the prettiest, windiest, wickedest roads you can?

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Well, you can't. The Achilles heel for all electrics has always been so-called range anxiety. Recharging, and finding a charge station, takes some planning. (Though that is not so difficult, really -- there are many apps, with maps included, for that purpose. Mr. Broder didn't seem to use any of them.) Tesla's answer to its customers' range anxiety issues is the Supercharger station. But to see such stations as the solution is to miss the real point of a Tesla Supercharger station and what it represents. A Supercharger station is a sales-and-marketing tool, the same way Google's super-fast internet in Kansas City is a sales-and-marketing tool. Tesla is a company that makes cars, Google (GOOG) is a company built on Internet search and advertising dollars -- neither wants to be responsible for building the transportation or information infrastructures of the 21st century. They do, however, want to sell us their visions of the future. Both stunts are a way of proving to the world what is possible.

So if the purpose of a Supercharger station is to drag us (the consumer and the competition) into the future -- well, right now it's still early days, and not particularly pretty or convenient.

The guy most painfully aware of how difficult building a robust electric car infrastructure will be is J.B. Straubel, Tesla's chief technology officer. After my trip in the Model S, I spoke to J.B. about the limitations of our current charge network. California does not lack for charge stations, but most are so slow as to be nearly irrelevant for road-tripping. And even at Tesla's fast-charging ports it can take up to an hour to reach a full charge. The most troubling thing, to my mind, was that so many of these charging stations were in public parks, DMV- or government-owned parking lots, or blah strip malls -- in other words, no place in which you, the wealthy progressive owner of a fast and sexy car, would like to hang out for the next hour. How can it be that charge stations aren't yet real estate plays? If I were the representative of a business association in Cute Smalltown USA, I would be hounding Tesla and every other fast-charge company around to build a port or two in my downtown, so that Tesla drivers (and any other electric car owners) might wander around, eat and drink, and buy, buy, buy. "Is this not happening?" I asked Straubel. "How can this not be happening?" He sighed and said that, in fact, it's the exact opposite. Then he told me the story of Harris Ranch.

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If you live in California and have traveled Interstate 5, you know Harris Ranch for two reasons: The smell of its thousands of cattle is ripe enough to knock you backwards on a warm day; it is the only place along the highway for a good long stretch to stop and get food. Straubel courted Harris Ranch for years as a potential location for a Supercharge station. He explained the benefits to them, the type of clientele they stood to draw. Still, they were leery. The future is hard to see, and the rancher turned restaurateur/hotelier was risk-averse. What if they built the charge station, and no one came to use it, and all they had was one less parking space? But Tesla was footing the bill, so Harris Ranch decided to give it a try.

"Today," Straubel told me, "it's a small success disaster: There's only one connector and it's totally congested. The line is six vehicles deep on the weekends. Now, we're expanding that station by a factor of 6 or 8."

The future may be hard to see, but this much is certain: cars will someday run on something other than petroleum, because someday we will run out of oil. Right now, cars that run on lithium-ion batteries seem to be our best alternative. And today, amazingly, electric cars running on such batteries exist that in many ways are better machines -- more efficient and more fun to drive -- than internal combustion-powered ones. There aren't too many models available, and most are too costly for the average consumer, so only about one out of every 20,000 cars on the road is fully electric. Still, the number is growing and surely would grow even faster if electrics weren't limited by infrastructure -- specifically, a scarcity of quick, convenient fuel stations. It's a chicken-and-egg problem. The cars are here, the stations are not.

Tesla is building some stations so that it can sell more cars, but it isn't in the charge station business. (Musk claims, provocatively, that Tesla is not a car company, but a technology company.) The existence of Supercharger stations increases the value of a Tesla car, but right now no other cars can charge on these outlets. Thankfully, Tesla isn't the only electric carmaker out there, and so its competitors will try to build cars that can hold a charge as long as Tesla's, and drive as far -- but will they, too, embark on building their own charging network? Will we end up with a lot of separate charge stations, all for different cars, made by all the different carmakers? Not likely. My guess is were some other company to begin offering a way to charge a Tesla, or any other electric car, as rapidly as Tesla has, Musk and Co. would be delighted. After all, Tesla's Supercharge stations exist for the sole benefit of Tesla owners, and for everyone else they are as useless and symbolic as a planted flag that says: We are here, we are the future -- now, please, won't you catch up?

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