Ride the Lightning: Electric Car Charging Technology Is About to Surge Past Tesla's Superchargers
By the end of 2019, new systems could leave Elon Musk's high-speed car charging network in the dust.
Tesla’s Supercharger network has long been the gold standard for electric vehicle charging systems. The company’s hefty investment into charging support for its own customers—the company's proprietary plugs mean no other EVs can charge there—has been planned out to ensure Tesla owners can use their vehicles as they please without worrying about whether they’re going to run dry on a road trip. So far, it’s been the envy of EV owners everywhere, who haven’t had the same breadth of access or the same charging speed. (Tesla Superchargers deliver between 120–140 kilowatts of power, enough to fully charge a Model S with a 90-kWh battery in just over an hour, or provide 170 miles of range in 30 minutes.)
The Supercharger stands aren't just convenient, though. The company’s roughly 400 stations in North America—1,200 globally—are clean, bright, and kinda cool. The most fabulous: A station midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, in Kettleman City, that opened in last fall with 40 stalls, solar roofs, and a waiting area with a coffee bar and play area for the kids. It feels more like the Virgin Atlantic business class lounge at Heathrow than a roadside rest stop.
Of course, fancy digs come at a cost, which Tesla keeps close to its vest. While the Kettleman City location is the only one with a proper lounge and its own building—meaning its cost is clearly into the millions—most of the rest are more modest installations integrated into existing rest areas, shopping plazas, and business parks. On average, each Supercharger station likely costs between $150,000 and $300,000, according to analyst estimates, though some individual stations cost more because of complexity, infrastructure enhancements, and greater numbers of charging stations.
Tesla's golden-boy status in the EV charging community, however, is about to change. By the end of 2019, there could be another 1,000 charging stations around the country that offer far faster charging than Elon Musk's vaunted Supercharger network. Both Porsche and Electrify America—a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group, which, of course, owns Porsche as well—have announced in recent days plans to construct roughly 500 DC fast-charge stations each. The systems will provide up to 350 kW of power for cars capable of charging that fast, which translate to about 20 miles of range for every minute of charge. That comes out to 300 miles of range in just 15 minutes. At those speeds, who’s going to need a lounge?
Porsche’s investment will support its Mission E electric sedan, due to arrive next year, and the similar Mission E Cross Turismo coming shortly thereafter. The stations will be distributed along popular drive routes and in metro areas and Porsche dealerships—and they’ll be able to be used by other electric vehicles, as well. The initiative reflects a similar effort in Europe, in which Porsche, VW, BMW, Daimler, and Ford are constructing a 350 kW-capable network meant to rival Tesla’s Supercharger network there. That network, called "IONITY," has already secured deals with 19 European countries for charging station placement.
Porsche also hasn’t disclosed its per-station costs, but Electrify America told The Drive that its own “Cycle 1” infrastructure investment for 484 DC fast charge sites on highways and metro areas totals $370 million. (The Electrify America effort is just part of a 10-year, $2 billion investment to be made by Volkswagen Group of America in EV infrastructure, education, and access, and reflects a relationship with the EPA and the California Air Resources Board.) That number also includes 600 workplace and apartment/condo sites with slower Level 2 charging—DC fast charging is generally considered Level 3—but even with that generously factored in, each fast-charge station could cost in the neighborhood of $500,000 or more.
In terms of speeding up the adoption of electric cars, however, the payoff could be huge, as the system could provide the easy access and low wait times consumers demand. The stations will provide between 200 and 920 volts at 350 amps of current, an Electrify America spokesman said, which translates to between 50 kW and 350 kW of capability. This will cover a wide range of EVs, including current lower-range models that use AC hookups. The real technological breakthrough on the high-speed end rests in the charge cable, which is lighter and thinner than existing equivalents thanks to a liquid-cooling system that reduces the heat load passing through the cables in high-amperage use. Reducing these temperatures allows them to provide higher electrical current—that 350-amp maximum—through cables that are much thinner and easier to manage than the thick cables found on Superchargers. The stations will also be easy to use, standing up to eight feet high for better cable reach and with a 15-inch color touchscreens to operate the station and provide payment or account info.
The Electrify America stations—to be built by ABB, BTC Power, Efacec, and Signet—will vary in capability based on location. Large highway sites will be able to charge faster, while those in metro areas will initially provide lower power—around 150 kW. The thinking here is that urban users may not need the same range as highway drivers, though the city systems can be easily upgraded to 350 kW should the need arise. The infrastructure demands will also vary with location. A large highway site with 10 stations will require about two megawatts of power—with dedicated utility servers and likely new transformers as well—but a three-station metro site with just a 50-kW Level 2 charger can get by with just a 160-kW hookup.
Another key differentiator between Porsche and Electrify America’s effort will be the cost to the consumer. While Tesla has received high marks for providing free charging to owners of Model X and Model S vehicles at the Superchargers, the other companies have confirmed they will charge for the power, at rates comparable to gasoline fill-ups—though hopefully without the volatility of gasoline pricing. At this point, it’s probably a good idea to start charging people for the electricity they use; indeed, not doing so has proven to be one of the gremlins in Tesla’s system, with local owners parking their cars at stations intended for distance drivers in order to get the free electricity.
For its part, Tesla has acknowledged that this perk will likely start to dwindle, since it now has annual caps of 400 kWh at its Superchargers—above which users are required to pay for the electricity—and the Model 3 doesn’t include the benefit of free high-speed charging. They still have the groovy lounge in California, of course, but overall, the free lunch at the port might be extinct sooner rather than later.