Should Tesla Open Up Its Supercharger Network To Other Brands?

In the middle of September, a bug opened up charging on some of Tesla’s European Superchargers to vehicles from other manufacturers – for free. This led some to ask, if there was no technical impediment, why this couldn’t be a permanent arrangement, with a payment attached. After all, Tesla has one of the biggest charging networks in Europe and the USA. Some have even argued that it is immoral that Tesla has kept its charging network exclusive to its own vehicle customers, saying that this is hindering the green revolution. So should Tesla open its Supercharger network to drivers of vehicles from other brands?

For many Tesla Supercharger locations, this is a moot point. In the US, Tesla started off with its own proprietary connection so vehicles with other plug types would at the very least need a cable adapter. In Europe, Tesla went with the Type 2 connector, which like the American Type 1 is officially aimed at slower AC charging. But Tesla customized it to support DC up to 150kW. So here, again, other brands would need an adapter.

However, when Tesla rolled out its V3 Superchargers in Europe, alongside the arrival of the Model 3, it switched to the standard CCS port, and is now updating new Model S and X to have CCS adapters as well as providing an upgrade for older vehicles. The V3 Tesla Supercharger is the latest version that supports up to 250kW rates. This means it can get an EV back up 80% charge in tens of minutes, providing an experience much closer to filling up with carbon-based fuel. In Europe, all the V3 installations use the CCS port, and these were the ones that other vehicles were able to charge from when the software glitch occurred. There aren’t that many V3 Superchargers around yet but being the fastest ones made the glitch particularly newsworthy.

Polar is the UK’s biggest EV charging network – but Tesla’s is a close second and its charge points are generally faster.

You can see why so many gaze upon Tesla Superchargers with jealousy. Although the number of charging stations available both in Europe and the US is growing fast, only some of these are the “Rapid” DC variety that can provide a recharge experience that’s reasonably close to fossil refueling. In the UK, Polar, the network now owned by BP, has the biggest share of EV charge points with 16.9%, but Tesla is a close second with 14.8%, and a greater proportion of its locations are “Rapid” than Polar’s as well as being faster (150kW plus rather than generally 50kW). In the US, Tesla has about half the charging locations of ChargePoint in total, but more than half of the DC Fast Charge connectors (which are in the same class as Rapid ones in the UK and Europe). In Europe as a whole, Tesla hit a milestone of 500 Supercharger stations at the end of 2019, and the total has now reached 530.

Although Tesla has significant technological advantages over its EV competitors, the Supercharger network has been its other secret weapon. In fact, in order to make the concept of electric vehicles work, Tesla had to create a charging network as well as the cars because at the beginning this didn’t exist. A significant proportion of what made Tesla EVs a viable form of transport was this ecosystem, and apart from some fleet operators, it owns the network. No other vehicle manufacturer owns a charging network directly in this way, with the vast majority being commercial enterprises, and this is where accusations of “selfishness” come in. It’s also where they don’t make sense.

Ionity’s 350kW chargers are rolling out in Europe partly to provide a Rapid charging alternative for non-Tesla EV owners

Some of this can be explained by typical jealousy from those who can’t afford a Tesla towards those who can. When arguing this point with Europeans, the example of Ionity is often brought up as a comparison. This is the European company that has gone one better than Tesla by offering 350kW chargers and is aiming to roll out 400 of them across Europe by the end of 2020, strategically placed along highways. Where Tesla’s superchargers are for Tesla cars, Ionity’s are part of a joint venture set up in November 2017 by Mercedes, BMW, Ford and the Volkswagen Group including Porsche and Audi. Hyundai and Kia are allegedly joining up as well. Premium vehicles such as the Porsche Taycan and Audi e-tron are sold with access to the network, and now the Volkswagen ID.3 does too. The Ionity network has clearly been created as a perk to combat the attractiveness of Tesla Superchargers.

Where (glitches aside) Tesla Superchargers are for Teslas only, Ionity chargers can be used by any car with a CCS port. But the price is very high, at 69p ($0.89) per kWh in the UK and 79c ($0.92) per kWh in Europe, so at least in the UK you don’t tend to see that many cars from outside the consortium using them, because the slower alternatives tend to be less than half the price per kWh. Ironically, Tesla owners seem to be the most frequent visitors, and this is where the “morality” comments come in. The argument goes that it isn’t fair that Teslas can use chargers from other companies and yet nobody else can use theirs.

Until the Model 3 arrived in Europe, Tesla used a proprietary charge port making its charging stations incompatible with vehicles from other manufacturers.

This argument has many problems. First, all Tesla owners purchased their cars in part with exclusive use of Superchargers as an incentive and were potentially willing to pay extra for their vehicles to obtain this. Before January 15, 2017, this was free unlimited usage for life. Second, as already discussed, while the European V3 Superchargers use CCS, the majority of Supercharger installations still have a proprietary port, and Tesla would have to spend millions to change everything over – as well as rendering its older vehicles with only proprietary ports obsolete. Third, Ionity has received tens of millions of Euros in funding from the EU to help create its network. Since public money was used, it makes sense that the public should get access. Finally, looking at other networks, even with funding, they are capitalist enterprises, so their business model is different to Tesla’s. Including Ionity, the capital investment is intended to be recouped via charging fees, whereas the Tesla Supercharger network was paid for much more upfront by the retail income from the cars.

In other words, it’s not a moral argument, it’s a business model. However, there is a possibility that Tesla does open its Supercharger network up – for business reasons, not moral ones. There is a theory that the glitch enabling charging for other vehicles in September was in fact the accidental release of a feature in development. The initial insight here is that it will be an EU requirement for some Tesla charging points at each location to be made available to other cars. But on top of that, as Tesla’s network expands, its value as a generator of income increases, and if (like Ionity), Tesla charges a considerable premium to other brands for using its very fast network, it could be very lucrative. After all, the cars that can support charging over the typical maximum of 100kW DC (other than Tesla’s) are the expensive ones like the Porsche Taycan. So while the argument that Tesla should open its Supercharger network for other brands because it’s selfish not to do so might be spurious, it could be about to happen anyway – because it’s profitable.

Original Publication by James Morris at Forbes.

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