“You will be able to drive free forever on pure sunlight. I think it’s pretty hard to beat that.”
So proclaimed Elon Musk last night in Los Angeles as he unveiled a new fleet of solar-powered, public charging stations for the Tesla Model S sedan. Tesla Motors (TSLA), the all-electric-car maker, has set up six of these stations alongside freeways in California to help cars complete long-distance journeys such as Los Angeles to San Francisco or Santa Barbara to Las Vegas. Tesla, which Musk co-founded and runs as chief executive officer, plans to put dozens more of the stations in California over the next year and to cover most of the U.S. by 2014.
Tesla describes the stations as “superchargers” because they rely on homemade technology that can refuel cars in record time. Charging at 100 kilowatts, it takes about 30 minutes to fully revive a car that’s been driving at 60 mph for three hours. So, the vision Musk has is of a family setting out at 9 a.m., driving until noon, and then plugging into one of the free charging stations while they grab a bite to eat and use the bathroom.
Musk also serves as the chairman of SolarCity, a residential and commercial solar-panel installer that has built car port technology for the Tesla stations. The stations will generate more power than the cars need, which means Tesla will sell power back to the grid. “If you want to go from Los Angeles to New York, if you pack food and stay with friends, you can leave your wallet at home,” says Musk.
The version of the charging station displayed by Musk at Tesla’s research and development center looked like a 20-foot-tall, black and white monolith. A huge curtain peeled away while dubstep music played in the background and Musk looked on amid clouds of smoke, wearing a black T-shirt with the word “supercharged” written across it. Musk pitched the charging stations as the answer to those who fear driving electric cars over long distances and those who criticize electric cars as just transferring the emission problem from open roads to power plants.
The funky stations were designed by Musk. He showed off the early prototypes to me a couple of months back, during my visit to the Los Angeles design center. The towers had a pyramid-shaped metal scaffolding inside them to survive serious weather conditions and the spaceship-like outer design is a cosmetic homage to Musk’s other company, SpaceX.
Tesla has six of the stations installed in Lebec, Coalinga, Barstow, Folsom, Gilroy, and Hawthorne. They’re open now for customers.