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Tesla’s Superchargers: The company's killer app

I should be able to charge a VW E-Golf next to a Model 3.
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Roberto Baldwin / Engadget

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Telsa wants to be Ford and Chevron. The company wants to build the cars and supply the fuel. In this case, that fuel is electricity and the delivery system is the company's robust Supercharger network. CEO and tweet-machine Elon Musk routinely talks about changing the world for a better place. To reduce pollution for bluer skies, greener grass and the ability to breathe without sucking in CO2. Tesla has already started that trend by forcing other automakers to accelerate their timeline with electric cars.

But to really make a dent in gas-guzzling car sales it needs to take action with its most precious resource: the Supercharger network.

Back in January, I drove a Tesla Model 3 from San Francisco to Las Vegas. I got in the car, plotted out a route and the navigation displayed a plethora of charging stations along the way. Even when I veered wildly from the predetermined plugging-in path, there were enough waypoints to get me where I was going without the horror of range anxiety. It's an example of what it should be like to drive an EV.

If I were to take another EV that I really like -- say the Hyundai Kona EV -- to Las Vegas, I'd be concerned and, to be honest, stressed the entire time. Third-party charging stations frankly don't cut it for long trips. I'd have to use multiple apps to find chargers and hope that the meager number of stations aren't already full when I arrive.

Tesla could make charging other vehicles a reality. In fact, Musk has said that he's down. During the 2018 first quarter call when asked about other vehicles charging at Supercharger stations, he said:

"We've always said that we're -- this is not intended to be a walled garden, and we're happy to support other automakers and let them use our Supercharger stations. They would just need to pay the share of the cost proportionate to their vehicle usage. And they would need to be able to accept our charge rate or at least -- and our connector, at least have an adaptor to our connector. So this is something we're very open to, but so far none of the other car makers have wanted to do this. But it's like not because of opposition from us. This is not a walled garden. Trying to make a meritable share."

First off, no automaker is going to change its charging port to Tesla's proprietary connection. Why would you help your competitor like that? But Tesla could build adapters and work on the software needed for other vehicles to connect to their system. What I'm saying is that Tesla could make dongles for other EVs. Like your iPhone, it won't be pretty, but the hardware needs to be robust to handle the electricity and the heat those electrons create while being shoved into a car, SUV or futuristic pickup truck.

Then Telsa needs to work on the software. Unlike the pumps at Exxon, charging stations are complex computers that need to talk to the vehicle plugged into them. The way it works is sort of like this.

"Hi, I'm a car that accepts 150kW of electricity"

"Hello car, I'm a charging station that can output 250kW of power, but I see you only want 150kW so I'll slow my roll and only offer you that power in a way that doesn't harm your battery or create too much heat."

It's more complicated than that, but you get the drift. If Tesla says it can create software that will make its cars self-driving by the end of the year (but probably not), it certainly can get its chargers to talk to other vehicles. ChargePoint, EVgo and other charging station companies can do it, why not Tesla? Making the world a better place is tough and sometimes it requires lots of lines of code and chatting with other OEMs about battery tech.

This might seem like it benefits the folks that bought a Chevy Bolt or VW E-Golf more than Tesla. But in reality, it's a revenue stream. Tesla famously offered many owners of its cars free charging for life. That's a great way to grow a base of users but not so good for the bottom line. Adding more cars to the network, that actually pay, should make investors happy.

But more importantly, it gives Tesla a captured audience. Some of those Supercharging stations are actually very nice Tesla-run rest stops with coffee, bathrooms and a store to buy company swag. What self-respecting dad wouldn't want a jacket with the T logo on it? If these stations were opened up to other EV drivers, the company could use it as a showroom. Throw a Model 3 in there, let the owners of a Nissan Leaf see how the other half lives. It's better than keeping them at arms length which is what the Tesla community seems to be doing now.

The cult of personality around Elon Musk is ridiculous and, in many cases, toxic. Some Telsa fans have morphed into a mob that believes that people are either with them or against them. If you own a Tesla, you care about the world and technology and dank memes. If you own literally anything else, you're in the pocket of big automotive or big oil.

It's off putting and bad for business. I'm a believer that if two groups of people (in this case Tesla owners and the owners of literally any other EV) can spend time with one another, they'll realize they both want the same thing. A better, cleaner world for future generations. Or at least a car with sweet EV torque. Also an undying hatred for "coal rollers." What's wrong with those people? Who hurt them?

Finally, it's good for the planet. Building cars is bad for the environment. It doesn't matter what it runs on. My advice is to hold on to your car for as long as possible before buying new. Or better yet, buy used. If you bought a Chevy Bolt before the Model 3 was available, keep it as long as you can. Sure you're pining for a new shiny Model 3, but if you truly care about future generations you'll eke out as much use as you can. When it dies or no longer truly meets your needs, then get the new or slightly used shiny EV from the Fremont factory. In the meantime, use their charging network because it's nearly everywhere and it works. Maybe you'll make some Tesla-owning friends and you can chat about "hypermileing" or whatever Elon tweeted that morning.

Sure, that flies in the face of what Tesla wants in regards to vehicle demand. Selling cars is a tough business made harder by being the new kid on the block. But it doesn't have to be the only business. There are rows and rows of white and red columns just waiting to recharge automobiles from around the world while sucking in piles of cash.

So Tesla, for reals, live by your code to truly save the planet -- and maybe also, make a profit (and some new friends).

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
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