How did Tesla’s Superchargers earn their gold standard status, and can they keep it?
There’s no way to sugar-coat it: the public charging experience stinks. In survey after survey, EV drivers report that many charging stations are inconveniently located, and lack amenities such as rest rooms, lighting, restaurants and stores. The charging process is often unnecessarily complicated and confusing. However, by far the biggest complaint is that the uptime performance of public chargers is abysmal. In January, one study found that a quarter of public chargers tested in the Bay Area were non-functional (via electrek). Other surveys have found similar, or even worse, downtime ratios.
Above: A Tesla Supercharger stall. Photo: Neo Tan / Unsplash
The only bright spot in this dismal picture is the Tesla Supercharger network, which is consistently rated as the best (or at least the least bad) of the public networks. In a recent J.D. Power survey, respondents rated the Tesla Supercharger network the best among national fast charging networks, and rated Tesla Destination chargers the best among Level 2 networks. In the Charged/umlaut 2021 EV Charging Infrastructure Benchmark, testers found Tesla Superchargers to have the best location experience of the national fast charging networks.
While consumers’ preferences are clear, it’s hard to pin down the details as to why the Superchargers are superior. However, there are several reasonable surmises. For one thing, at a Supercharger, there’s no fiddling around with RFID cards or apps (some networks require you to go through a complicated process involving user names, passwords and credit card numbers, before you can even find out if a charger is working or not). You simply plug it in, and it starts charging. The system recognizes your vehicle and bills you (or not, if you’re one of the elite who still enjoy free charging) automatically.
In this department at least, help is on the way for non-Tesla drivers. A new standard called Plug and Charge, which automatically handles authentication and billing, is supported by most new EVs, and is rapidly being adopted by all the major charging networks.
When it comes to the location of charging stations, Tesla has enjoyed a significant first-mover advantage. The company started building out its charging network a decade ago, before most of the legacy automakers had given a thought to public charging—as one writer put it a few years ago, there was a land rush on, and Tesla quickly grabbed most of the prime real estate around highway junctions and other strategic locations. Siting Superchargers near amenities such as hotels, restaurants and shopping was a priority from the beginning.
What about reliability? We’re not aware of any actual statistics about Supercharger uptime, but we do know that most Supercharger sites feature multiple charging points, and some have dozens. We’ve heard from more than one user who says that, if they encounter a Supercharger that’s down, or that isn’t delivering the desired power level, they just move to another space.
I’d like to present a reasonable surmise as to why the Superchargers’ level of satisfaction is so much higher. Older readers will remember the early days of personal computing, when Apple machines were consistently rated easier to use than PCs. The obvious reason was that the same company was making the entire system, and it was a company that was highly sensitive to the user experience. We PC users had to deal with a computer from one company, an OS from another, applications software from others, and peripheral hardware from dozens more. Remember when you had to take your PC apart to plug in a sound card, then adjust tiny little dip switches to set the IRQ and DMA? Apple users just plugged in a set of speakers, and it worked.
I’m convinced that one of the main reasons public chargers are so unreliable is that they are often the product of as many as half a dozen different companies—hardware manufacturer, site owner, installer, utility, network operator, payment processor and more. Yes, Tesla uses contractors to install Superchargers, but it makes the vehicles and the hardware that charges them, it operates the network, and it oversees the whole process with an Apple-inspired focus on usability. Again, hard statistics are lacking, but it seems common-sensical that this is likely to result in a better user experience.
Be all that as it may, the public charging scene in the US is about to change dramatically. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is going to unlock up to $7.5 billion in federal funding for charging infrastructure over the next five years. Tesla stands to benefit from some of that investment, but only if it opens up its network to drivers of other automakers’ EVs, which it is expected to do soon. (Tesla currently offers access to non-Tesla drivers in several European countries, and will reportedly begin opening up its network in the US later this year.)
Will Tesla be able to maintain its reputation as the gold standard of charging once the unwashed hordes storm the gates? Overcrowding and long waits are already a problem at some busy Supercharger sites. And is the Supercharger experience really as superior as the surveys imply, or could it be a case of comparing apples to oranges? After all, many Tesla drivers have probably never used a non-Supercharger fast charger, and until recently, no non-Tesla driver had ever used a Supercharger.
Within a few months, Tesla will be in direct competition with Electrify America, ChargePoint, EVgo, EVconnect, Shell and the rest. These companies will also be taking their share of the federal infrastructure money—and dealing with the compliance and oversight issues that always come with government funding. These companies know they need to raise their games and improve their uptime performance. Healthy competition is a good thing, so let’s hope that the opening of the Superchargers helps lead to a better and faster charging experience for everyone.