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No free lunch: Tesla Model 3 owners will pay for Supercharger access

The lower-cost Tesla Model 3 will likely lose a perk of Model S and Model X ownership: free charging at Tesla’s network of Supercharger sites. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said in the past that some Teslas would not have free access to the Superchargers that can refill the batteries to 80% charge in about 45 minutes.

Since there’s no credit card reader in the current Supercharger hardware, it’s likely owners would have to set up accounts in advance. Currently, every time a Tesla connects via the charging hose, the car identifies itself to Tesla. Discussion of pay-to-charge for Model 3 owners kicked up a notch with the discovery this week of non-implemented code on citing Supercharger credits. It’s possible Tesla will uses this as a springboard to selling quick-charging to non-Teslas.

Tesla Model 3 red and blue

At Tesla’s annual meeting May 31, CEO Elon Musk said, “Free Supercharging fundamentally has a cost. The obvious thing to do is decouple that from the cost of the Model 3. 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 purchase that package.”

So far, Tesla has not formally laid out how it would charge. It appears possible that Model 3 owners could purchase a life-of-the-vehicle Supercharger charging package, buy a fixed number of energy credits, say for 1,000 kilowatt-hours (about 15-20 fill-ups), or pay as they go. If Tesla just passes along the cost of electricity, currently about 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, and if the Model 3 uses 30 kWh per 100 miles (the bigger Model S uses 33-38 kWh per 100 miles), a fill-up after 200 miles of driving would cost Tesla $7.20 at residential rates. For a midsize combustion engine car getting 30 mpg, the same 200 miles would cost $15 in gasoline at $2.25, the national average price of regular gas in late summer 2016. Even the gasoline for a 50 mpg Toyota Prius would be $9 for 200 miles.

In some states, laws there only allow established utility companies to charge for electricity, and buying pre-paid access credits to the Supercharger network might get around the problem. Regardless, with smartphone apps and Teslas that identify themselves to a Supercharger module, there’s really no need for a credit card read as long as the network is up.

Several sites including this week reported on unimplemented code on the Tesla site that references a payment option to purchase Supercharger credits per kilowatt-hour block. It’s not only on the pages of the 375,000 Tesla Model 3 reservation holders but also on pages for the Model S crossover and Model X crossover. The code reads:

Tesla Supercharger sites 2016

It’s possible that when Tesla ships the first Model 3 late next year (Tesla’s slated first-ship date), it might implement the option across the Tesla line. That would be especially appealing to very-low-mileage Tesla owners and those who live in areas sparsely populated with Supercharger stations. Tesla boasts of 694 Supercharger stations today with 4,263 Superchargers. But a look at Tesla’s map shows the bulk of them on concentrated on the East and West Coasts, in the inland population centers, and cross-country along Interstates 90, 70, 40 and 20.

Early on, Tesla sold lower-capacity Model S EVs without free access to the Supercharger network and offered an Enable Supercharging option for $2,500 for the life of the car. At current rates, that’s equal to the price of more than 20,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity at residential rates. If 1 kWh drives a Tesla one-third of a mile, 20,000 kWh would carry it about 6,500 miles, making even a $2,500 upcharge a good deal – as long as you live near Superchargers.

Tesla Supercharger quartet of cars

Here’s what Tesla may do over the next several years:

The Supercharger hardware would need some modifications to handle other brands, but Tesla has said that’s do-able. It’s a win for Tesla since the volume of business would enable more Superchargers stations. (It would also drive more traffic there and annoy Tesla owners if lines grow longer.)

Tesla could make money off partnerships with other automakers and might sell rights to use its connectors and charging algorithms. Some Tesla Supercharger sites are now located on state or county-owned highway rest stops and Tesla will come under pressure to make them universally accessible, so Tesla may win by doing this ahead of regulators. Either way, it eases the path for more EVs and potentially less pollution as combustion-engine cars give way to battery-electric vehicles. Big powerplants aren’t zero-pollution, but they emit less relative to burning gasoline or diesel.

There are few weeks when Tesla and CEO Elon Musk aren’t in the news. Still, this was a particularly eventful week.

On Thursday, the week’s news drove tells Tesla stock 5% and SolarCity 9%. On paper, CNBC reported, Musk’s net worth fell $350 million.

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