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Why It's Important for Electric Cars to Feel Familiar

Mon, 12/17/2012 - 5:54am

Tesla-charging-port

If you think about it, the electric car is an incredible act of deception. Sure, the vehicles may look pretty much exactly like the sedans that have filled our roads for the past hundred years, but once you scrape away the shell, their streamlined electric drivetrains and battery packs have almost nothing in common with the pistons and gears of a gasoline-powered car. At their core, electric cars are remarkable pieces of technology, masquerading as the unremarkable vehicles of decades past. And this deception doesn’t stop with appearances. You only need a couple of minutes behind the wheel of an EV to realize its designers did just about everything they could to make these machines feel like the cars we’re familiar with. Of course, the impetus for this is obvious. Car makers need to convince a skeptical population that EVs won’t bring them too far outside their comfort zone. Only once car makers have gotten a potential buyer behind the wheel can they blindside them with the benefits. I’m not just talking about the obvious energy efficiency. If you’ve never driven an all-electric car, the first time you hit the accelerator and feel the instant torque that EV engines can produce is nothing short of a thrill. Which brings us to one of the most important innovations in the EV industry’s journey to get these things into our comfort zones -- and eventually our garages: the Tesla Superchargers. If you haven’t read, the EV manufacturer recently announced plans to build a network of 100 or so so-called “Superchargers” around the country and in Canada, which will allow drivers of the Tesla Model S sedan to fill up for free, forever.

So far, six of these 90-kilowatt charging stations are up and running in California (two of which get some of their power -- and green cred -- from their use of solar panels), and the rest of the 100 or so will be installed by the end of next year, according to Mateo Jaramillo, Tesla’s director of powertrain business development. Although Tesla has not yet announced the specific locations for the planned supercharger sites, Jaramillo told me they are scattering them in locations that will allow you to drive pretty much anywhere in the country, and always be within range of the next station once you’ve filled up.

This is very, very important. Drivers are used to having easy access to gas stations, so giving them a network of free charging stations that are always within range of a single charge should ease some nerves. And never mind the fact that cross-country road trips (one of those luxuries that many folks assume will be impossible with EVs) will not only be possible -- hey’ll be doable without spending a cent on gas. And, just as EV makers have intentionally designed their vehicles to remind us of the combustion cars they are replacing, Tesla is building their Superchargers to look, feel, and behave as much like a traditional gas station as possible. In conversation, Jaramillo is fond of calling the rollout and use of these stations “unremarkable.”

“A light goes off in people’s heads the first time they use it,” Jaramillo says. “It’s one thing to consider it and talk about it. But once you do it and see how easy it is and unremarkable it is... the first time i actually used it, it finally made sense to me.” But, like an EV’s resemblance to a classic Chevy, any similarities between a Tesla Supercharger and a Shell station are purely superficial. The idea, once again, is to trick people into performing a familiar act in a familiar setting (in this case: filling up their car at a station), and then blindsiding them with the benefits. Not only are the Tesla stations free for Model S users (a fact that has got to be pretty mind-blowing if you’re used to spending $50-plus on a tank of gas), but they also have the potential to tap into the Tesla mobile app -- which feeds customers a wealth of information and control over their EVs -- in some very interesting ways.

Jaramillo wouldn’t give specifics on what the company is working on in this regard, but it isn’t hard to imagine the app notifying you when the 30-minute charge is done. Go grab a burger (many of the stations are located at shopping centers) and do some shopping, and the app will let you know when your car's fully charged.

That's the promise of the Supercharger: Set it and forget it. It only looks unremarkable.

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December 17, 2012

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