Tesla Motors Inc. (TSLA)’s Elon Musk is expanding a network of fast-charging stations, letting owners of his luxury electric cars drive coast-to-coast this year.
The carmaker, which has tripled in market value this year, is also tripling the number of solar-powered supercharger stations so that owners of the Model S sedan can drive to New York from Los Angeles, said Musk, Tesla’s chief executive officer and biggest investor. The company is providing more details of the charging-network expansion later today in a conference call.
Tesla needs a broader network of charging stations to appeal to customers beyond California and the northeastern U.S., where it now has fueling spots. Without such stations, Tesla drivers are limited by the estimated 265-mile (426-kilometer) range of a battery charge.
“Traditional charging has been way too slow and it’s not effective for long-distance travel,” Musk said in an onstage interview at the D: All Things Digital conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. “When people buy a car they’re also acquiring a sense of freedom.”
Nine stations now provide free electricity for Model S owners, and the company has said it wants 100 along U.S. and Canadian highways by 2015.
Tesla, based in Palo Alto, California, rose 3.8 percent percent to $108.60 at 11:19 a.m. New York time. Tesla’s 209 percent rise through yesterday compares with a 16 percent increase for the Russell 1000 Index.
The announcement by Musk, 41, follows a series of events this month that put Tesla on the most secure financial footing since its founding a decade ago. The carmaker’s first quarterly profit was followed by a top rating from Consumer Reports for the Model S and a share-price surge. Investor demand created an opportunity to raise $1 billion from selling equity and debt and retire its U.S. Energy Department loan nine years early.
“Tesla’s role is kind of interesting: They’ve changed the whole story line” about electric vehicles, said Tom Turrentine, director of the California Energy Commission’s Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California, Davis. “This is a company that thrives on mythology.”
Musk said May 20 that the supercharger network expansion announcement was pushed back to this week as the company focused on completing its Energy Department loan repayment.
“We’ll both be increasing the density and the scope of the network,” Musk said.
The carmaker named for inventor Nikola Tesla began opening the charging stations last year, including six on California highways and three in Connecticut and Delaware, according to Tesla’s website. They allow a car to be repowered in a fraction of the time possible at home, providing 150 miles of driving range in about 30 minutes, with electricity flowing at about 400 volts. Fully recharging a Model S, priced from $69,900, takes as long as eight hours with a 240-volt home-charging system.
With 100 stations, Tesla could cover major cross-country highways such as Interstate 90, which runs from Seattle to Boston, and Interstate 80, which stretches from San Francisco to Teaneck, New Jersey, each with about 20 stations each if they are placed every 150 miles. Interstate 75, which runs from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, to near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, might need about 12 stations.
At 150 miles per charge, a Tesla driver could cover the distance from Los Angeles to New York with stops at fewer than 20 charging stations, depending on the route. A driver of a traditional car with a 400-mile range, could make the drive with as few as seven tanks of gas.
The ability to drive an electric car coast to coast isn’t as essential as making standard public chargers more ubiquitous, said Don Anair, research director for the Clean Vehicles Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Berkeley, California.
“Most people don’t go that far from home on a regular basis, but want to know they’ll have no difficulties using their vehicles under normal circumstances,” Anair said.
“To the extent it makes some people feel more comfortable with the range they can go in a Model S, it does help improve acceptance of electric vehicles,” he said.
Use of Tesla’s supercharger is standard with high-end versions of the Model S, which feature an 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack and are priced from $79,900. One with a 60-kilowatt-hour battery can use the chargers as a $2,000 option.
Owners repower their cars for free at the stations, using electricity produced by solar panels installed and maintained by SolarCity Corp. (SCTY), where Musk is also the chairman and largest investor.
“Like most things Tesla has done, it’s very good marketing and a very good early-adopter thing to do,” said Brett Smith, an alternative-vehicle analyst at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Given who’s buying Teslas, it won’t mean much for the mass market.”