Musk’s Whiplash Spells Chaos for EV Charging

Recent moves undermine confidence even as the industry adopts Tesla’s Supercharger

5 min read

Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning auto writer and former chief auto critic at The New York Times and The Detroit Free Press.

A row of Tesla Superchargers and cars seen through a charger in the foreground.
Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images

Elon Musk appeared to win the battle, and the war. Tesla’s vast Supercharger network had crushed rival automakers, forcing a surrender: Adopt Tesla’s North American Charging Standard, or lose customers frustrated with a balkanized, often-unreliable Combined Charging Standard (CCS) network.

But even as Ford and Rivian began sending free Tesla adapters to its EV owners, Musk seemed to kneecap his acclaimed creation: In late April, the CEO fired all 500 members of his Supercharger team, apparently in a fit of pique. The mass firings came as Musk turns his attention to AI and autonomous vehicles as the future of Tesla’s suddenly dwindling profits. After analysts and investors sparked a fierce backlash, Musk changed his mind, saying he would rehire some of the Supercharger team.

Some infrastructure experts are sounding alarms. Musk’s unpredictable moves, they say, highlight a potential leadership vacuum in charging, one that governments or private entities may be poorly equipped to fill. Musk’s actions also expose a truth that continues to hamstring EV adoption and its critical role in stemming climate change: No company, including Tesla, has cracked the code to make charging a profitable, sustainable business.

“None of it makes sense,” said Chris Nelder, an energy-infrastructure expert and host of The Energy Transition Show podcast. “But I’m no longer surprised. People should be terribly concerned that there’s this erratic, disgraceful person that everyone is counting on to make this EV revolution work.”

“This chaos only slows down the charging industry.” —Chris Nelder, The Energy Transition Show

Most recently, Musk insists Tesla will continue to expand a network that, as early as 2012, became the envy of the automotive industry as it offered to unlock long road trips for otherwise leery EV purchasers. “Just to reiterate: Tesla will spend well over [US] $500 million expanding our Supercharger network to create thousands of NEW chargers this year,” Musk wrote on X on 10 May.

Who will maintain the charging infrastructure?

Yet former employees confirm that some Supercharger projects are being stalled, sites canceled, and construction teams dismissed. A former Supercharger project manager told IEEE Spectrum that Tesla’s claimed 99.9 percent station uptime—which in reality, he said, is closer to 95 to 98 percent—could drop due to lack of oversight.

“If it becomes a problem when people can’t find enough stalls, or stalls aren’t working, you’re going to have to build this team up again and go back to scale,” said the former manager, who asked to not be identified publicly.

Tesla’s roughly 2,250 Supercharger stations, with about 25,000 total stalls, represent about 60 percent of DC chargers in the United States. Those chargers automatically send notifications for internal glitches. But regular Supercharger vandalism, including thieves stealing copper wiring, requires human monitoring. “If the team is gone, who will customers contact if a site is vandalized?” the former manager said.

Some experts and rivals insist charger momentum will continue. Rachel Moses, Electrify America’s senior director of sales and marketing, said the company’s charging sessions jumped from 1.45 million in 2021 to nearly 11 million last year. Electrify America aims to have 5,000 DC fast-charge stalls online by the end of the year.

Electrify America isn’t alone: A report by the International Council on Clean Transportation cites public announcements from automakers, charging companies, retailer, utilities, and governments planning for the installation of more than 200,000 new DC chargers and 2 million Level 2 chargers by 2030.

“There is a good opportunity for others to come into the market, but it’s going to take a huge amount of capital.” —a former Supercharger project manager

“Regardless of Tesla’s pace, public charging in America is about to get easier,” said Peter Slowik, the ICCT’s U.S. passenger vehicle lead.

Nelder strongly disagrees with suggestions that all is well.

“There’s no way to put a happy face on it,” Nelder says. “This chaos only slows down the charging industry, reduces investor and consumer confidence, and slows the adoption of EVs.”

EV charging remains an unsolved business problem

Nelder says the Supercharger squad can build out sites with speed, cost efficiency, and reliability that no competitor can touch. Yet even Tesla hasn’t proved it can make money from charging. With Musk laser-focused on reviving Tesla’s profits and tumbling stock price, some experts suspect Supercharging may be falling on his priority list.

“Public fast charging is an extremely difficult business on its best day,” Nelder says. “Tesla was likely subsidizing its network with profits from cars, and it couldn’t pay for itself. Yet Supercharging is clearly an important part of the value proposition for buying a Tesla.”

The former Tesla manager seemed to confirm that sentiment. Driven by Musk, the company ruthlessly drove hardware and installation costs below $21,000 per stall, not counting costs such as site acquisition and permitting. Yet the operation still didn’t generate real returns.

“Because it’s Elon we’re talking about, everything is about productivity and profits,” the former manager said. “Apparently Superchargers just didn’t fit into the plan. There is a good opportunity for others to come into the market, but it’s going to take a huge amount of capital.”

Up to $7 billion of fresh capital is on tap from the Biden administration. That includes $5 billion through the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Program (NEVI), with annual $1 billion allocations for charger installations through 2026. The ambitious program underpins Biden’s bid to have 500,000 public chargers in the ground by 2030. And that program dovetails with aggressive Environmental Protection Agency emissions rules that would require 50 percent of new cars to be EVs by 2030.

“Regardless of Tesla’s pace, public charging in America is about to get easier.” —Peter Slowik, International Council on Clean Transportation

Yet EV sales have cooled markedly, leading some automakers to pull back on expansion plans. The NEVI program, which can subsidize up to 80 percent of charger costs, has been plagued by a glacial rollout: As of May, only eight federally backed chargers had opened. Supporters say the pace will pick up, as states work through voluminous rules and red tape for funding and construction.

Other roadblocks remain. Even as Tesla rivals vie for NEVI projects, they need to simultaneously switch existing chargers to North American Charging Standard plugs, and replace or maintain older, increasingly obsolete chargers in the field.

“If you imagine competitors sitting on a big pile of cash to deploy, perhaps they’d catch up, but they’re not,” Nelder said. “They’re all sucking wind trying to survive.”

Tesla has secured the most NEVI funding so far, but it’s still a mere $17 million for 41 proposed stations. Tesla’s average per-site funding request of $414,000 compares to $631,000 for Pilot Travel Centers, another leading NEVI recipient, pointing to Tesla’s unmatched efficiency and experience.

The Supercharger has looming tech troubles

Hastily assembled remnants of the Supercharger team will have their hands full, said the former employee, who has no interest in reapplying for an understaffed, overworked position. For one thing, Tesla is facing its first-ever interoperability challenge. Tesla’s vertically integrated chargers—originally made from the bones of onboard chargers from the Model S—have only needed to work with a handful of Tesla models, an advantage for charger dependability and simplicity. Now, virtually every legacy automaker and startup is racing to integrate the North American Charging Standard into new cars, beginning with Ford and General Motors next year. Tesla will need to work closely with those automakers to ensure software and onboard systems are compatible, from vehicle communications to charging protocols and payments. That all requires engineering resources, which Musk has stripped bare.

Rival charging companies are also preparing to switch, including Electrify America, ChargePoint, and EVGo. To ease the transition, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has expedited a JC400 standard based on the NACS connector. In addition, Tesla’s current V3 Superchargers aren’t compatible with a growing field of 800-volt EVs from Hyundai, Kia, Lucid, Porsche, and others. Those models are limited to trickling 50-kilowatt refills on Superchargers, versus well over 200 kW from some competing stations.

That raises more troubling questions: Having sparked a rush to Superchargers, can Tesla handle an even larger mass migration? Will other companies step up, or short-circuit?

“I don’t know who the next big player may be in this industry,” the former Tesla manager said. “But I’m definitely curious about what happens next.”

The Conversation (2)
Tom Craver
Tom Craver13 Jun, 2024

Tesla should focus on a mobile service for dense urban areas to solve the 'I don't have a driveway or charging stations near me" reason for not buying Tesla. Use an app to schedule a truck to drop off a battery pack and plug it in to charge a parked car. Generally just topping off - no more than 20% boost to charge status.

One truck can service a dozen cars, then go back around picking up all the packs to take them for recharging.

Premium service, so can charge more than cost of electricity.

Partev Sarkissian
Partev Sarkissian25 May, 2024

There are standards for fittings at petrol stations, so standardize EV fixtures and fittings at EV charging stations. If Elon Musk can't deal with that,... power lines are a federally regulated utility. Come up with a common hardware that fits all the different EV makers. Need to get everyone on board regarding making EV's the way to go.