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Electric Vehicles

Why Tesla Just Traded Away Its Biggest Advantage

The Ford-Tesla partnership is good — and I hate it.

Tesla and Ford logos and charging stations.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Ford’s Jim Farley sent a jolt through the electric vehicle world on Thursday. In a joint announcement with Tesla boss Elon Musk, streamed on Musk’s own Twitter Spaces, the two CEOs announced a partnership in which Ford EVs would be able to use Tesla’s vast Supercharger network. By early 2024, Fords will be able to power up at around 12,000 Tesla Superchargers.

The move is an obvious boon to the Blue Oval brand, which saw its stock price soar Friday morning on the promise of offering its electric drivers an enormous expansion of charging options. It’s probably a good thing for a nation on the verge of electrification to have a lot of fast-chargers open to everyone rather than competing proprietary networks. Musk said as much during the Ford announcement: “We don’t want Tesla superchargers to be a walled garden.” And it’s a revenue plus for Tesla, which just acquired a new group of customers who’ll pay to use its chargers.

Yet one question lingers: Did Tesla just give away its biggest competitive advantage?

Musk’s company has a huge head start in the American EV space. Even as a new crop of competitors erodes its market share, Tesla still claims six of every 10 new EVs sold in this country. Musk and company built that lead on the desirability of its vehicles, sure. But the brand’s ace up its sleeve has always been the Supercharger network, which includes more stations and overall plugs compared to the independent charging companies like Electrify America and EVgo that serve other brands.

In 2019, when my family was determined to go electric, we bought a Tesla Model 3. Even then there were other electric vehicles (Hyundai Kona EV, Chevy Bolt) that offered similar range at a similar price. The dearth of chargers was the dealbreaker. Only Tesla’s network offered us the capability to use an EV as our only car and still drive nearly anywhere we wanted to go.

Over the past four years, Tesla has entrenched that advantage by filling in the map. As sales skyrocketed here in California, the company opened a slew of new Superchargers in and between the major cities to combat the lines that form on popular travel days and busy times of day. Even so, it’s possible to search for a Supercharger on the car’s center display and see the clock icon that indicates you’ll be waiting for a plug.

And so I have been dreading this day. Superchargers across Europe have been open to non-Telsa EVs for a while now. Stateside, Musk has promised the same thing, though, so far, just a handful of stations have been equipped with the “Magic Dock” that allows cars without the Tesla connector to charge. With the Ford announcement, I can already feel my blood pressure rising in anticipation of plug rage. One day in the not-too-distant future, I’ll pull into a Supercharger in Burbank, Buttonwillow, Berkeley, or Buellton and find there’s nowhere to charge because an F-150 Lightning or Mustang Mach-E occupies the last stall.

This trend cuts both ways, however. It took years, but Tesla now offers an official adapter that would allow its drivers to plug in at stations with the CCS standard that serves current cars by GM, Ford, and other car brands. I wish I’d had that gadget years ago when I tried to cover the expanse between Albuquerque and Gallup, New Mexico. Ignoring the car’s advice — give up and go back to Albuquerque — I puttered at 55 miles per hour on a 65 mph highway to ensure we’d make it. With an adapter, I could’ve stopped at a CCS halfway for a little anxiety-relieving electricity.

Despite my selfish desire to see Superchargers remain a walled garden, it’s better for everyone if the country’s EV infrastructure is open to all. Ford drivers with access to the Supercharger network will find they’re less likely to get stuck waiting for a plug during highway rest stops and, in some states, more able to reach destinations off the beaten path.

But is it better for Tesla? Musk certainly believes whatever sales advantage is lost by loosening the reins on his charging network is made up for not only by selling more kilowatts to more drivers, but also by getting access to a chunk of money from the federal government. The Biden administration’s infrastructure law includes money for companies that build EV chargers, but only if those chargers aren’t proprietary to a particular car brand. Which may explain some of Tesla’s motivation to rebrand its connector as the “North American Charging Standard” and to convince other automakers, like Ford, to use it.

This means Tesla will have one less differentiating factor when buyers choose their EV. But it also means the company will have a bigger revenue stream in its back pocket.

Blue

Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read More

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