HAWTHORNE -- Addressing a key concern consumers have about electric cars -- their range between charges -- Tesla Motors (TSLA) on Monday unveiled an aggressive plan to build a nationwide network of high-speed "Superchargers" to make it possible for drivers of its all-electric Model S sedan to go on long road trips without having to make long stops to recharge their batteries.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has been dropping hints about Tesla's foray into electric vehicle charging for months, wore a black "Supercharger" T-shirt and spoke before an enthusiastic crowd at Tesla's design studio in Hawthorne. Some of the biggest applause came when he announced the charge-ups would be free for Model S drivers.
"You can drive almost anywhere in California right now," said Musk, who spoke in broad terms about the initiative but offered few details. "We've built these up in secret and are unveiling them for the first time tonight."
The Supercharging stations, which Tesla says will be twice as fast as any now in use, will be installed at highway rest stops, with the idea that drivers can top-off the charge on their battery while they go to the bathroom and grab a bite to eat. Six stations are already installed in California: at Gilroy, Harris Ranch, Tejon Ranch, Barstow, Folsom and Los Angeles.
By 2015, Tesla plans to expand to more than 100 charging stations across the United States.
In a video widely viewed on the Tesla Motor Club forum, Musk previously said the Tesla connector can deliver up to 90 kilowatts to the vehicle -- twice as much power as what would ordinarily be considered a fast charge.
"At 90 kilowatts, you're recharging about 100 miles of range every 20 minutes," Musk said in the video. "If you're traveling between cities, you don't have to stop for very long in order to recharge enough range to go to the next leg of your journey."
Tesla says the Model S was designed with supercharging in mind, and that frequent supercharging should not degrade the battery.
The Model S is available with three battery pack options that offer roughly 160, 230 or 300 miles per charge. All Model S vehicles equipped with the 300-mile battery or the 230-mile battery will be able to use Superchargers, but those equipped with the 160-mile battery will not.
The Superchargers will be rolled out along major highway corridors, and will be powered by solar panels from SolarCity, making it possible to "drive on sunlight." Musk is the chairman of SolarCity; his cousins Lyndon and Peter Rive run the company.
The Superchargers can only be used by Model S drivers; they won't work with other plug-in electric vehicles. Drivers of the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt and even the Tesla Roadster are out of luck.
"More power to them," said Felix Kramer, a well-known electric vehicle advocate and the founder of CalCars. "Tesla is moving more quickly than others to have a network of high-speed chargers, and they are giving their customers a fantastic new service."
Kramer owns a Nissan Leaf and a Chevy Volt and has reserved a Tesla Model X, a crossover SUV slated to launch in 2014. He noted that the nascent electric vehicle industry has yet to settle on a single standard for fast-charging, and that it makes sense for Tesla to get in the game.
Electric vehicles have an onboard charger to transform alternating current from the electrical grid to DC, or direct current, for recharging the vehicle's battery pack. One of the key challenges to fast-charging is the connector or cable that attaches to the battery -- it has to be able to safely carry the current.
Electric cars are a game-changing technology with one big challenge: the battery. Most electric vehicles on the market have limited range, making it hard to drive from San Jose to San Francisco and back without stopping to recharge. And many industry experts say that mainstream consumers will never fully embrace electric vehicles until they can travel as far as a gas-powered car on a single charge.
Tesla's Model S already has the longest range of any electric vehicle on the market. By moving into charging, Tesla is trying to conquer the long road trip problem.
But some analysts criticize Tesla's decision as overly ambitious, given the enormous pressure the company is under to ramp up production of the Model S.
Tesla has more than 12,000 reservations for the Model S and has said it will make 5,000 Model S cars by the end of the year. But that target seems increasingly elusive, and in recent weeks Musk has backed away from that figure, focusing instead on the company's plans to produce 20,000 cars in 2013.
"It seems curious to go to the expense of setting up your own charging network," said John Gartner, a senior analyst with Pike Resarch. "There's already a West Coast EV highway that is being deployed along I-5. Rather than use what's already out there, Tesla seems intent on doing its own thing."
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.
1. A Model S with the most powerful battery pack will be able to add 150 miles of range in about half an hour.
2. The Superchargers will be installed along major highway corridors across the country; six are already installed in California.
3. The Superchargers can only be used by Model S drivers: they won't work for the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt or even the Tesla Roadster.
For more information, go to www.teslamotors.com/supercharger