Range limitations will no longer be such a roadblock for electric cars, an uncharacteristically demure Elon Musk predicted tonight. At an event in Tesla’s California design studio, the CEO announced that the company was developing a network of solar-powered, high-speed charging terminals to be installed at roadside restaurants, rest stops, and shopping centers. The Supercharger—a tall, Trek-y obelisk—will pump 90 kW of energy into a Model S in just 30 minutes, according to Musk. A 240-volt outlet would deliver only 10 kW in the same time.
Although the very short recharge times will appeal most to customers, Tesla sweetens the pot with its pricing: Using the Supercharger is free.
Musk explained rather vaguely that “economies of scale” of the Model S enable Tesla to offer recharging at these Supercharger stations for free. Even though the solar energy itself is free to Tesla and SolarCity, the electric power company helping administer the program, the cost of the towers themselves is no doubt enormous, as will be maintenance and eventual replacement of storage batteries.
Thus far, six Superchargers have been installed in California, theoretically providing a corridor of free energy to traverse the entire state, and to travel to the popular vacation regions of Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas. The company has plans to expand the network across the country to New York next year, and says it will reach 100 stations nationwide by 2015.
Thirty minutes of recharging time, especially from a solar source, sounds great, but Musk’s pronouncement that this means there’s “no meaningful difference between driving an electric car and driving a gasoline car” is too optimistic.
This ambitious plan brings with it very significant questions, which as of tonight had no answers.
- How many Supercharger outlets will be installed at each location? Especially because the juice is free, we imagine that Model S drivers on popular travel routes could find themselves waiting for a spot to open up, further adding to the 30-minute clock.
- Does the high-power charging system have any effect on the durability and lifespan of the Model S’s battery pack? This can be an issue with lithium-ion battery packs in other cars and devices.
- How much energy can the Supercharger units store? If there’s a steady stream of customers, we could see demand depleting reserves faster than the solar panels can recharge them.
- What happens when there isn’t enough sunlight? Can and will the Supercharger stations pull electricity from the regular grid?
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While we wait for those answers, there’s still no denying that Tesla’s announcement tonight addresses head-on one of the chief impediments to success faced by cars powered by electricity, hydrogen, or other alternative means: convenient refueling. Are we looking at the beginnings of a major, nation-shaping infrastructure project or just a clever idea that will never reach critical mass? We’ll have to wait—far longer than 30 minutes—to find out.