Sustainable Energy

Tesla’s Cheaper Model 3 Could Strain Charging Infrastructure

The more-affordable Tesla Model 3, to be unveiled Thursday, is projected to sell in huge numbers. But will there be enough places to charge them?

On Thursday, Tesla Motors unveils its Model 3, an electric car that will cost about half as much as the company’s flagship, the Model S. The new car is expected to have a base price of $35,000, but after federal and state subsidies for electric cars, that should shrink the price to under $30,000, or around $220 a month to lease. It is supposed to be a Tesla for the rest of us. The company hopes to sell a lot of them; the Model 3 is crucial to Tesla’s projection that it will sell 500,000 vehicles in 2020, almost 10 times the number it sold in 2015.

This is exciting. Electric cars are far more efficient and less complicated than those with internal combustion engines, and offer significant environmental benefits. But as someone who leases an electric car—a Fiat 500e—news of a newer, cheaper electric vehicle also causes pangs of fear. Having more electric cars on the road means fresh competition for a precious, vital resource: public charging stations.

The majority of people who own electric cars today charge their vehicles at night in the garage or driveway of a home that they own. But that is changing fast. The vast majority of new electric car sales are to people who live in cities, which makes sense because the vehicles are very efficient at stop-and-go urban driving. Charging at home at night can be impossible for people who rent an apartment or lack a garage.

I charge my car in public parks and mall parking structures around Los Angeles, using a diversity of charging networks run by startups such as Chargepoint and Blink. I typically pay $5 to $10 to charge up. Every single station has been, for years, mediocre to terrible. The stations are often broken due to software or hardware problems, and remain out of service for weeks. Competition among electric car drivers for these public charging stations is fierce and intensifying. It’s practically impossible for me to find an open charging station during the day.

Tesla has built out its own charging network, which is free to use for owners of its existing models. (There are 274 such stations in North America and 613 worldwide.) The company’s “superchargers” can fill up a Tesla in 30 to 40 minutes, compared to the typical three or four hours on a 220-volt public charging station.

Even so, I see Teslas parked alongside Nissan Leafs, Chevy Volts, electric Ford Fusions, and electric Fiats like mine every time I visit my local public charge stations in Los Angeles (about every other day). I’ll often end up helping a confused and harried Tesla driver operate the charger. If I mention the free supercharger stations available only to them, they usually seem vaguely aware of them, but either don’t have enough charge left to reach one or can’t be bothered to drive out of their way.

David R. Keith, an assistant professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, says this is just one reminder that electric vehicles are not just cars with a different kind of drivetrain. They challenge the conventions that underpin how we live our lives and build our cities. Those conventions can’t change very fast, he says, because electric vehicles and their infrastructure needs remain highly exotic to most people. That could hinder the uptake of electric cars even if they’re reasonably priced.

“There’s an effect that if you don’t have the infrastructure, people don’t buy the car; and if you don’t buy the cars, you don’t have the infrastructure,” says Keith. America currently has nearly 100,000 public charging points, and will need a whole lot more if Tesla’s Model 3 is to really take off.

Some startups have invented creative ways to get around the time and cost of installing permanent charging stations. One, called Mobi Charger, uses a boxy, ice-cream-cart-sized rig filled with old electric car batteries to deliver quick charges to cars in need. But it is so far limited to a few corporate parking lots in the Bay Area. Probably the best long-term solution will be the most obvious and boring: have public utilities build the infrastructure. 

Lisa Jerram, a research analyst at Navigant Consulting who tracks the electric car market, says utilities have lately been showing more interest. In California, home to more public charging stations than any other state, laws that prevented utilities from selling electricity directly to consumers in this way were recently overturned. Southern California Edison, which serves Los Angeles, and San Diego Gas & Electric are now starting to build charging points, although they’re focused on workplaces and new-build apartments.

Jerram says that as utilities begin tackling the problem of public charging, they could adopt some of the most useful elements of the existing charging networks, such as their software and payment methods.

Right now we’re in an in-between stage, though. New electric car owners—and likely future Model 3 owners—are early adopters who must navigate a system that is still evolving. “You’re having an adventure in new technology,” as Jerram told me. That’s one way of putting it.

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