STATIONS THAT can charge Tesla electric cars in 20 minutes — far quicker than most owners of electric cars are used to — are being installed on Britain’s motorways by the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.
The first supercharging stations are due to be unveiled within weeks by Musk, who is advising the government on electric car technology. Ministers hope his electric superhighway will transform the way drivers view electric cars, and energise their sales.
Similar highways in America enable drivers of the Tesla cars that Musk pioneered to travel long distances without the usual “range anxiety”. It is possible to reach Canada from the Mexican border, or cross from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast, refuelling at supercharging stations where electricity is free for owners of top-of-the-range Tesla models.
One of the first supercharging stations is at South Mimms services, at the junction of the M25 and the A1 in Hertfordshire. It will form part of an electric highway stretching from Dover along the M20, and from Bristol along the M4. The two routes will converge on the M25, from where the highway will follow the route of the M1.
Construction work was almost complete last week, with wiring installed and the supercharger units sitting in wooden crates.
Many electric cars require overnight charging to replenish their batteries, and their range is typically less than 100 miles.
Tesla’s Model S Performance Plus car, which costs about £70,000, can travel up to 300 miles on a charge, according to the company.
The Sunday Times travelled 260 miles on a charge when it tested the car in America (see video below). The first right-hand-drive models are due for delivery to British customers early next month.
The supercharging stations will allow drivers to add enough charge in 20 minutes to take them 130 miles. The charging hose locks in place so drivers can go for a coffee while their car is plugged in.
Tesla drivers will have unlimited access to the supercharger network for either a one-off fee, or included in the price of top-of-the range cars.
The government appointed Musk as an “electric car czar” last November in an attempt to boost sales when the electric revolution, predicted by transport ministers since 2010, failed to arrive.
Two other companies, Ecotricity and ChargeMaster, also plan to develop high-speed charging networks, which can be used by owners of other electric cars, but Teslas are likely to remain the car of choice for motorway journeys due to their superior range.
Some analysts see Tesla as the last chance to persuade drivers to switch to battery power. In Britain, only 1,547 pure electric cars were registered in the first four months of this year: 0.18% of total car sales. This is despite millions spent on grants and tax concessions for buyers of battery-powered cars and charging points.
Edmund King, president of the AA, said: “Tesla could be a game-changer at the upper end of the market.
“The car looks good and is desirable. If it can be partially charged in 20 minutes and has a 300-mile range, then it should satisfy 98% of drivers.”
Hard-headed investors also seem to be swayed by Musk’s arguments. Tesla announced its first profit in April last year, and is repaying soft loans from the US department of energy.
Its shares were trading last week at $189 compared to the issue price of $14-$16 when the company was floated in 2010.
Elon Musk: the real-life Iron Man
Musk made his first fortune from co-founding PayPal, the online payment system, which was sold to eBay in 2002 for $1.5bn.
With his share of the proceeds he launched two companies, SpaceX, which builds rockets to launch satellites and resupply the International Space Station, and Tesla, his electric car company. “Of the two”, he says, “building electric cars is the most challenging.”
Tesla’s new car — the Model S — is now the third bestselling luxury car in California.
Musk was the inspiration for the modern interpretation of Tony Stark, the character who changes into Iron Man in the film franchise of the same name. A Tesla Roadster sports car appears in the first Iron Man film and Musk makes a cameo appearance in the second of the series during a scene in Monaco. The Tesla factory in Fremont, California was used as a location for the same film.
Musk has plans for a manned base on Mars and a propulsion tube called “Hyperloop” that would carry passengers the 354 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes at the speed of sound.