By Pete Brissette

With fanfare befitting a Hollywood premiere, Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk unveiled the Tesla Supercharger to a crowd of hundreds gathered at the company’s design center in Hawthorne, Calif., Monday night.

The solar-powered stations – built in conjunction with SolarCity , another Musk property – will supply 440 volts at just less than 100 kw. This, Tesla says, will allow the 85-kwh Model S to recharge in approximately 30 minutes with enough power to travel as far as another 150 miles.

With six free-to-use stations in California as of now, Tesla has plans for its network as big and ambitious as its plans for its pending model line. However the stations only work with Model S, Model X when it comes out, and subsequent Teslas. It's not only a competing standard to CHAdeMO and SAE, even the Tesla Roadster was not spared in being incompatible with it.

Tesla says “at 90 kw, a Tesla Supercharger delivers 4.5 times more electricity to your battery than Twin Chargers,” and a full charge for the Model S sedans – the only vehicles that can presently utilize the Jetsonesque charger bays – could take around an hour.


“The technology at the heart of the Supercharger was developed internally and leverages the economies of scale of existing charging technology already used by the Model S, enabling Tesla to create the Supercharger device at minimal cost,” Musk said during the unveiling.

Musk gave a rough cost estimate of $20-30 million for the charge station network’s rollout. Offering a bit more detail on Musk’s cost projection, Tesla VP George Blankenship said it represents “a little less than 100 installations” as part of the company’s long term plan (see graphic below).

Blankenship also explained that station placement will be dictated by the highest concentration of Model S owners in a given region, rather than randomly placing a Supercharger in a bustling roadside commercial area.

Of the six currently operational charging stations announced at the event, one is located at the company’s Hawthorne design studio, with the remaining stations in Folsom, Gilroy, Harris Ranch, Tejon Ranch (more correctly, the Grapevine exit on Interstate 5), and Barstow.

Musk stated he expects more stations by year’s end in Oregon as well as Nevada, with a European rollout by next year. Each Supercharger station will have four to six charging bays fitting one car at a time, as it is with current-day gasoline stations.

Appealing to alternative energy enthusiasts, as well as present and future Model S owners in the crowd, Musk proudly explained that the stations “will put more power back into the grid than the cars can use.” But perhaps most enticing to Model S customers is the news that the stations are free to use.

“You’ll be able to travel for free, forever, on pure sunlight,” exclaimed Musk. Tesla has not said whether after a point in time it may decide to start charging for Supercharger access, but maybe not, as Musk said "forever" so that means Tesla will be funding charging stations to service all vehicles it sells into perpetuity, right?

Unfortunately, Tesla Roadster owners have less to get excited about, as the stations won’t service the company’s first product, nor any other brand of electric or hybrid vehicle. Nor is it a simple matter of utilizing an adapter plug to fit other EVs to the Superchargers. Instead only Model S and future Tesla product, like the forthcoming Model X crossover , will benefit from Superchargers, effectively making this infrastructure only for present and future Teslas.

Tesla hired a former Apple marketer to set the pace, and seemingly copying another Apple trick of rendering its previous technology obsolete, Tesla has quickly relegated its Roadsters one step closer to outdated by not designing in compatibility with them for its new charging stations.
Also possibly raising eyebrows is Tesla’s 100-plus station long-term plan which could seem extraordinarily ambitious considering that as of the third week in August Tesla had only acknowledged building roughly 100 Model S units.

Tesla has until yesterday maintained it will build 5,000 of the new sedans by Dec. 31, 2012, although yesterday news that it has lowered its 2012 sales target to 2,700 to 3,250 this year, and a follow-on offering of 4.34 million common shares sending TSLA stock trading just over $30 per share into a $3-dollar (10-percent) decline to close at $27.66 per share yesterday. The sudden drop also triggered Nasdaq's short-sale circuit breakers, which shield stocks from being manipulated by short sellers.

Of the stock offering to be managed by Goldman Sachs, with proceeds designated for "general corporate purposes," Musk has said he is interested in buying up to $1 million worth of the shares.

But while Tesla sort of conceded what observers could not help but notice about its slow production ramp up, it still said on Monday its Supercharger network will mushroom in years to come from six in California to over 100 nationwide.

Coming back to those excluded Roadsters, as the evening wore on, a small faction of Roadster owners were heard voicing disappointment over the exclusion of the Roadster from the charging network.

One female Roadster owner unabashedly said that as an early adopter of Tesla she “helped build this company” but now feels left behind by the brand with the advent of the Supercharger.

Tesla explained, however, that it’s simply a matter of hardware; the Roadster isn’t capable of accepting the power dispensed by the Supercharger. We are unsure as of deadline what hardware would be required, or its cost, to potentially retrofit a Roadster. Also unknown is the likelihood of such a possibility, and the notion was not broached by Tesla at last night’s event focusing on present and future models.

As for cars the few Teslas that can use the Superchargers, according to a Tesla staffer, the rate of charge from zero to 80 percent is the same, while the charge rate for the remaining 20 percent will vary, with the charger and car’s software systems communicating to decide how quickly to complete the full charge. To determine this, the system will take into account things like the condition of the battery and numerous other data. Expect a complete battery charge, zero to 100 percent, to take approximately one hour for the 85-kwh Model S.

Referred to by Musk as “rest stop” locations, the stations’ locations to date are more aptly described as being in commercial, highly trafficked areas like truck stop locations with shops, restaurants and the like, rather than the department of transportation-style restrooms located along state highways. For now the Superchargers are co-located with existing business property; the Tejon Ranch station is located in the same lot as a Yogartland, according to a member of Tesla’s marketing department.

The space-age design of the Hawthorne station is what Tesla would hope each station could look like, but the reality is that the appearance of each station will be restricted by local planning ordinances. The Tejon Ranch station is borderline Spartan and industrial looking, lacking the sleek shapes of the Hawthorne installation.

The two-year plan displayed on the map of the continental U.S. has numerous dots representing hoped for locations in much of the country, while a “long term” plan revealed charge stations throughout the U.S. and various locations in Canada.

Tesla's monolith is essentially an icon intended as identifying signage for each location, rather than being a functional aspect of the Superchargers.
With the dizzying array of information available to the Model S driver on the car’s 17-inch touchscreen display it’s conceivable that the car could route to the nearest Supercharger, or list any stations within range, but as of now that feature doesn’t exist according to Tesla. Nevertheless, a simple software upgrade for the Model S in the not-too-distant future might include a Supercharger location routing feature, and perhaps even allow drivers to reserve charge time in advance of arrival – all of which Tesla said is very likely.