Tesla’s Magic Has Been Reduced to Its Chargers

When you first drive a Tesla, there’s a moment when you just get it. For me, it was cruising around Detroit in a Model S about seven years ago and feeling that instant, supercar-crushing speed without the engine roar that usually accompanies it. Instead of an array of dials and buttons, I worked its controls through a giant touch screen, and used its Autopilot system to help with the monotony of long highway drives. When the Model S debuted in 2012, most other electric cars were impractical, souped-up golf carts. Here was one with sports-car acceleration that didn’t skimp on luxury, either.  

© Philip Cheung / NYT/ Redux

That revelatory Tesla moment? These days, you can have it in a Hyundai, a Ford, a Mercedes, or countless other cars. The playbook Tesla wrote is now being run by almost every car company, and Tesla’s cars feel less special than they once did. Its car lineup is getting old; it leans on heavy price cuts instead of fresh merchandise while the electric competition starts to pass it by. Its so-called self-driving technology is the target of lawsuits, recalls, and even a Justice Department criminal investigation. Over the weekend, The Washington Post linked Tesla’s Autopilot to at least 17 deaths. And even its top investors are begging CEO Elon Musk to log off Twitter and get Tesla’s house in order. (Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.)

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But Tesla still has one unbeatable superpower—its chargers. In recent weeks, Ford and General Motors separately announced that their cars will soon install ports on their electric vehicles compatible with Tesla’s plugs, eschewing the Combined Charging System (CCS) plug that seemed destined to be the industry standard in the United States. Just like that, the Tesla plug, once exclusive to its cars, could now very likely be the future of electric driving: Tesla, Ford, and GM alone account for roughly 70 percent of all EVs sold in the U.S., according to reporting from Reuters. If even one other big car company signs on to Tesla’s charging standard, CCS is all but done. Musk has already invited Toyota to join the party. The EV revolution has never hinged more on Tesla than right now.

Even the most hardened Musk critic will admit that the company got its Supercharger network right. With more than 17,000 locations in North America alone, it’s the most extensive public charging network in the world, and is also widely regarded as the most reliable and easiest to use. You pull up, plug in, and are billed for the electricity. Because these are Tesla chargers, they use only Tesla’s plugs, called the North American Charging Standard (NACS). Some Supercharger stations have adapters for other EVs now, but for the most part, they’ve stayed exclusive to Tesla’s vehicles. The chargers available to other EV cars, typically run by third-party companies, are infamous for making drivers use multiple payment apps, breaking down, and being too scarce.

It’s no secret why Tesla’s competitors want in on its network. Ford and GM want to get drivers into as many of their EVs as possible, so they hope to entice them with a network that tamps down on what is perhaps the biggest hurdle to EV take-up right now—anxiety over where to find chargers. And outsourcing this to Tesla represents massive savings; GM CEO Mary Barra has estimated that the move will save her company as much as $400 million previously allocated to building out charging stations in the U.S. and Canada. Since the Ford and GM announcements, charging companies such as ChargePoint and Blink Charging, which have exclusively used CCS plugs, have already said they too will add Tesla’s NACS plugs to their chargers. “These automakers have now realized that, Okay, we’re probably not as confident [with] some of these other third-party outfitters as we used to be, so let’s team with somebody that actually has this figured out,” Robby DeGraff, an analyst with the marketing-research firm AutoPacific, told me.

Other types of plugs could very likely be doomed. One standard plug makes the turn toward EVs so much easier for drivers, “and I think we already know which direction it is going,” Ivan Drury, the director of insights at the car-buying website Edmunds, told me. Drury said he largely sees this as positive for EV owners fed up with the ramshackle charging experience they get elsewhere. “You don’t want to have to go through half a dozen companies and look at all these different apps,” he said. “You want to know that charging is readily available and it’s always going to work.”

One problem is that the $7.5 billion that the federal government is shoveling toward EV charging is, for now, for CCS plugs—possibly throwing the entire effort into disarray. Think of it this way: Imagine it’s the 1980s and the government decides that Betamax is the future of home entertainment. So it spends a ton of taxpayer money to install Betamax players everywhere. But now two huge movie studios say they’re going with VHS instead. For now, companies building chargers will receive this money only if they include at least one CCS plug, but nothing’s stopping them from also planning Tesla plugs too, a spokesperson for the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation told me in an email. That may prove to be good news for the millions of EV drivers who will depend on CCS charging for years to come, but in the longer term, Tesla’s format could still win out.

In the short term, the upside for Tesla should be fast cash, because Ford and GM drivers will pay to use its Superchargers. It’s still struggling to launch new cars, such as the perpetually delayed Cybertruck, an angular, stainless-steel brute of a pickup that looks more like a Mars-exploration vehicle than a Ford F-150 competitor. The new Roadster sports car is also MIA, and the aging Model 3 is getting a face-lift while another car company would’ve replaced it by now. So the company leans on what it can do: fire-sale discounts, and then letting Ford and GM drivers join its charging network. What’s unclear is the exact revenue trade-off between adding Supercharger users and potentially losing car buyers, now that someone who prefers a Chevrolet EV to a Tesla can access Tesla’s best feature. Musk himself isn’t sure, or at least isn’t saying so publicly. At a conference in Austin, Texas, this week, he said this move would “help the rest of the industry” and spur wider EV adoption, though even he expressed some doubt. “I think it’s morally right, but (whether) it’s financially smart remains to be seen,” he said.

But Tesla’s domination is clearly about to reach a whole new level. If the Tesla plug becomes the standard in America, Musk and his company will maintain a huge role in EV charging for years or even decades to come. Legacy car companies are notorious for really only wanting to build cars. For a century, they’ve been happy to let independent dealers sell the cars and gas stations fuel the cars. Musk, however, breaks from the pack by doing everything in-house. He’s long expressed a desire in his Master Plans to become a kind of energy retailer—one that sells solar panels, generator-esque home batteries, and more. Ford and GM outsourcing their vehicle charging to Tesla could go a long way toward making that dream a reality, and soon. But given Musk’s erratic behavior, control-freak management style, and hard-earned reputation for doing whatever he wants, it’s hard not to wonder if this is the guy we all want in charge of the way cars will get around in the future. Considering this move ensures that plenty of people will be relying on Tesla going forward, they may soon have no other choice.

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