Model 3 Owners Will Pay for Access to Tesla Superchargers

By · June 10, 2016

Elon Musk, Tesla's chief executive, announced at a shareholder meeting last week that Model 3 owners will be required to pay to access the company’s Supercharger network. The base-level Model 3, starting at just $35,000, will offer fewer standard frills than its predecessors—so the decision wasn’t unexpected. For the Model 3 to succeed in the long run, Tesla needs to slice off as much starting cost from the car as possible without compromising the brand’s luxury credentials.

“The obvious thing to do is decouple the Supercharger Network from the cost of the Model 3,” Musk told an audience of investors and employees. “So it will still be very cheap—and far cheaper than gasoline—to drive long-distance with the Model 3, but it will not be free long distance for life unless you’ve purchased that package.”

It isn’t yet clear exactly how Tesla will go about charging for access. The right formula has proven elusive for public charging networks. Since 2013, Tesla has included free unlimited access to its nationwide charge network for all its new vehicles. Prior to that, Supercharging was briefly an add-on option for smaller-battery editions of the Model S.

The technical capability to use Superchargers will likely be pre-loaded into every Model 3 but it will be unlock-able only at a price, or as part of a trim level or options package. Just how much it will cost remains to be seen, but as an option on the Model S, it was $2,500.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Charge

The vast Supercharger network is arguably one of Tesla’s greatest achievements to date. It offers owners the ability to take road trips in a Model S or Model X. That’s not something any other all-electric vehicle producer in the United States can currently claim. More importantly, it offers a glimpse of the longer-range capability nearly all electric car owners could some day experience in the future.

Still, the fact remains that Superchargers are among the least vital perks of driving a Tesla. In fact, with demand already beginning to stretch the network thin in some places—leaving owners waiting in a queue—it’s possible many buyers would appreciate the choice to forgo Supercharging on Tesla’s more expensive offerings as well. Of course, that would essentially relegate a Tesla electric car to local and regional travel, rather than an EV that can go anywhere.

Studies show that even drivers of shorter-range EVs like the Nissan LEAF tend to do the vast majority of their charging at home. However, giving drivers the ability to charge for free encourages them to use public infrastructure when it might not always be necessary. By bundling the cost of charging into the starting cost every vehicle sold, Tesla has effectively encouraged its owners to use the Supercharger network whenever possible—not just on longer trips that exceed the car’s range.

Over the long run, some analysts believe that Tesla will have to either charge for Supercharger access based on usage or invest heavily in expanding the number of available chargers at popular locations.

Superchargers help sell cars—because it provides the company the ability to respond to buyers’ concerns about paying a hefty price for a car that doesn’t easily allow road trips. Of course, Tesla owners end up paying for the network one way or the other. Bundling the cost into every vehicle may have been a good initial strategy, but key questions remain: Will it become an outdated concept in an era when long-range EVs are more affordable? And will most drivers pass on the privilege (and cost) after gaining a better understanding of how it fits into typical driving patterns?

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