Innovation

How Tesla came to dominate the secret sauce of electric cars: charging stations

The network has moved from strength to strength over the years.

Tesla might not be where it is today without its charging infrastructure. The supercharger network, a globe-spanning network of super-fast chargers, reduces the anxiety with long-distance driving and helps alleviate one of the pain points around owning an electric car. It's the secret sauce of electric cars.

Tesla’s first vehicle, the 2008 Roadster, showed an electric car could be cool and powerful. For its next trick, the 2012 Model S sedan, it needed to show that it could also be practical. The supercharger network announced that same year offered six locations in California, to help ensure those new buyers could move further than the confines of their charger-equipped home.

That was easier said than done. Doug Alfaro, a former Tesla regional manager of charging infrastructure, tells Inverse that electric car skepticism was so high that, when pitching to some locations, they “would just hang up the phone” as soon as they heard “electric car.” As more cars got on the road, a “snowball effect” started to form – but a lot of misconceptions around infrastructure still linger.

Today, there are 1,870 supercharger stations worldwide with 16,585 charging points. Competitors like Ionity and Electrify America have sprung up to offer similar services for non-Tesla cars. The network has helped support more mass market cars like the 2017 Model 3, and the third-generation charger packs higher recharge rates and solar panel support.

Alfaro worked at Tesla from 2012 to 2018, as the supercharger network gradually flourished into its present state, before joining smart charger developer Wallbox as general manager for North America. Inverse spoke with Alfaro to find out how the team pulled it off, what happened to the early plans for solar, and how Electrify America and others are changing the industry.

What was the feeling inside the original supercharger team about why we need to get this right?

It’s actually a very curious fact that the supercharger network launched after the Model S. Those early adopters had a great car that could travel a long distance, but with nowhere to go! There’s a phrase that I use myself when I was discussing the priority of the supercharger network throughout Southern Europe: you develop the best [battery-powered] car there ever was that could go the longest it can ever go. Now you’re not only stuck in your home, but you’re stuck really far from home.

The understanding was that Tesla wanted to build the best car ever in all different scenarios to fully replace the combustion vehicle. You can use it day to day but also for important emotional parts of vehicle ownership. Road trips, visit family, business to business trips.

That’s where this fast charging mindset came in. It was very strict, from the beginning, that this type of infrastructure was to be located between cities. It was a way to get from A to B, bridging that gap to get places where you could never before.

A Tesla charging at a station.Sjo/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images

You must have faced a lot of skepticism. Did it feel like a challenge from the start?

One of the points that most complicated discussions with locations [was that] we’re building a network for cars that were not yet on the road.

You really had to sell this idea that there were going to be dozens, hundreds of people visiting this station, eating a sandwich, shopping in the mall while they waited for their charge to complete. Everyone had this question of, ‘where are all the cars? Why should I dedicate part of my parking lot to this thing that might never come? What if it never arrives and I have a charging station collecting dust?’

I think the main challenge was selling a vision that wasn’t quite there, putting in the stations before the traffic was there. If you build it afterward, it’s too late. You have your early adopters, your folks who’ve really bought into what was sold as a compromise-free driving experience, only to find compromises because you can’t do the trips that you normally do. It was not a chicken and egg discussions. It was like, let’s put chickens and eggs in baskets together and go for it. From there, the team, the resources, and the backing of the company was very strong.

Did you face skepticism that electric cars just weren’t the future?

Absolutely. I would say even from my own family! Saying, ‘you’re working for this company, and we’re not sure if it’s a great idea.’

I think there was widespread skepticism on whether this transition was real or due to other forces that were temporary, whether it was a long sustaining trend or just a trend unto itself.

It was interesting in the early conversations because Tesla was still not a household name, so a lot of it was explaining, ‘well, we build electric cars. And the focus of the company is to have a network which can support all kinds of road trips.’ As soon as you said ‘electric car,’ some parts of the country would just hang up the phone.

I faced the same beginning I had in the U.S. when I went to Europe, even after Tesla was a household name. I was building out the network but there were no cars yet in the country. It really came down to what people can visualize and trust. That made the difference between sites that were [and weren’t] able to get built.

It sounds like this got easier as time went on because there were more vehicles on the road. Did you find any sort of unexpected effects that you didn’t foresee in the planning stage?

That’s absolutely the case. Building the charging network got easier as more cars started visiting the stations. It’s like a snowball effect. I think [it was] on the order of one station per month, then a few per month, then one per week, then 10 per week. On a global level, it’s much bigger now.

Then you graduated to other problems, where maintaining a network that large becomes a challenge. You need to make sure that the network is not only in place, but that it’s a great customer experience. Whether you’re in California or Arizona, or Spain and France, it’s coordinated, it’s the same system. The experience is at a level where in one station you’re not located next to the dumpster, and in the other you’re at a five star hotel.

As the network grew, then size becomes a problem. A lot of these stations when we first started were only four stalls. We always built in the capacity to grow [from] four to eight. We thought eight would last for a future far away. Within a year it became eight and 10 and 12. The minimum now has to be much bigger. You have stations between Los Angeles and San Francisco where you now have 40.

A solar-powered supercharger station.Tesla

One way it seems the network has shifted plans was the rollout of solar energy. This was a vision from the start, but it’s now part of the third-generation rollout. What changed?

That’s absolutely right. There are probably two factors behind the decision to roll solar into later phases. One is the network had to expand at a rate that was much faster than solar, with all the permitting and complexity, could grow. So the first few stations did have solar, but, keep in mind this was six or so years ago, the permitting process was not streamlined. The interconnection was really challenging and that delayed a lot. Putting the infrastructure in, even if it was grid-tied in the first phase, was a priority.

The second was the network needs more power output each day. Each generation of supercharger has gone faster with more power. The first stations were 90 kilowatts, second-generation were 120 kilowatts, third-generation they’re 250 kilowatts. For that amount of power, you need a really large solar footprint.

There’s a trade-off between speed, timing and cost that needs to be accounted for. But many of the stations are now, with third-generation, being retrofit to include storage and solar. I do think that storage has unlocked a lot of the economic case for having solar embedded. That’s the way many of these stations will be retrofit in the future.

How much does higher wattage factor into consumer decisions? There’s a decision between whether I have the range to make a journey or not, but are people only willing to stop for five or 10 minutes?

With faster charging, you’re really only saving a handful of minutes between 150 kilowatts and 200 or more. What most people don’t realize is that fast charging at the maximum speed only happens for a few minutes in the whole process. That’s because of the way that the batteries are optimized so they’re not damaged. The race to the top has been in a large sense to get the charging times down, but also…a lot of marketing. It is very meaningful from, for example, 50 kilowatts to 150 plus. There, you’re actually bringing charge times from an hour or two down to 45 minutes.

There’s also a lot of cost associated with having ultra-high levels of charging with 350-plus. In some countries or markets it requires brand new utility infrastructure. You can get less stations per location versus something that’s a little more reasonable and almost as fast.

It was at first consumer-driven from 50 kilowatt up, but after a certain level, the time is pretty negligible.

That said, I think faster will always be better and the key to unlocking adoption, especially since the comparison point is how fast does it take to fill at the pump. There will, I think, always be a march toward somewhere between 10 to 15 minutes for a full charge.

How much did third-party charging infrastructures factor into the original vision? Did you always foresee a diversification of the market? I suppose that ties into the proprietary nature of the supercharger. Musk has mentioned before about offering the network to other companies if they’re willing to pay for access, but it doesn’t seem to have moved in that direction.

The Tesla network and supercharger protocol were launched very early on. AC charging for some time had a standard, DC charging didn’t quite. The standard was fairly limited and there were still no real-world installations.

When I was building the Pacific Northwest network, I–5, there was something that was called the Electric Highway, a joint effort between the state of Oregon and Washington to develop a coordinated charging system from southern Oregon to the Canadian border. This was about one to two stations every hundred miles or so and it was a monumental project. It took around two years, which was incredible at the time.

When we built out the charging network, in less than a year, not only the Pacific Northwest was built but also the East Coast to West Coast route, the whole Texas triangle, much of southern California, the North East, and already had begun a second cross country route across the U.S. and around Canada.

As an early mover in the space, Tesla had no other choice but to utilize its own standard because it was the only one that was coordinating across states, with the exception of projects like the Electric Highway. The question was, nationwide and globally, how can you accomplish this? It was that first-mover advantage, but also the first mover consequence. Your network is built, and now there’s a standard. Everyone who’s building a station today is building for CCS.

An Ionity charger.Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Elon mentioned that the supercharger network was open to anyone who wanted to invest. It seems like that was not an option considered by the other automakers, who instead joined together to create a network of their own with Electrify America and Ionity in Europe. These networks will be built for all vehicles because it’s open and the standards are used, but this network is also being built with [a] three to five-year gap on where the Tesla network is. There isn’t widespread availability [or a] coordinated network across the country quite yet. I would argue that gap is temporary and will soon come to a close because of the standards question.

Do you think the market is moving to a more consumer-friendly approach?

I think standards help accomplish that. CCS was [previously] locked at about 50 kilowatts, very limited in use, wasn’t being installed widely. Mostly because the network companies weren’t quite as strong. There was a chicken and egg problem. Investments didn’t happen until vehicles were on the road, and if vehicles were not on the road then investments weren’t made.

The Tesla network showed there’s a viable business model and path to widespread EV adoption, sufficient that funding became available for these networks to be developed. Investment came in, [as did] public funds as goals of countries and cities turn more toward lessening emissions. But that funding, because it’s public or investor funding, is almost always going to be dedicated towards the open standard.

The standard has improved. Instead of 50 kilowatts, now many stations are being installed at 150-plus, in some cases up to 350. It’s being installed in a coordinated fashion. This really began with Electrify America, which brought a more nationwide view. I think [this is all] bringing these networks quickly to the level of the supercharger.

Is there anything that you feel like press coverage gets wrong or distorts?

It often speaks about the lack of charging or infrastructure. I think that ‘infrastructure’ is too broad of a term.

In Europe, a journalist drove an EV that was not a Tesla for a 1,000-kilometer trip and said it was a horrible experience. It took them 16 hours, the charging stations didn’t work, when they went to one there was only one and it was occupied. [They said] the lack of infrastructure is the challenge. That same drive could have been easily done with a supercharger with only two stops and a very easy experience. Soon [it could be done] using the Ionity network.

What’s the missing piece of the puzzle? Is it already being planned? Are you trapped in the gasoline car mindset where you have to travel to a gas station? What are some advantages of having infrastructure at home? What does it look like at the city level?

Infrastructure is widespread, and it’s not only fast charging, but also other forms of charging that are easily accessible to folks.

This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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