Tesla turmoil means make-or-break moment for EV charging

Tesla is the leader in EV charging with more than 25,500 of its Superchargers in the U.S. JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES
Tesla is the leader in EV charging with more than 25,500 of its Superchargers in the U.S. JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES


Turmoil in Tesla’s charging network puts the spotlight on other fast-charging providers.

The EV charging industry faces a make-or-break moment.

Tesla rattled the U.S. charging industry in late April with deep cuts to the team that created the country’s most successful charging network. Since then, comments by Chief Executive Elon Musk have left other charging companies scratching their heads about Tesla’s plans.

Immediately after the layoffs, Musk tweeted that Tesla would build Superchargers, the web of fast chargers that enable cross-country road trips, at a slower pace for new locations. Then on Friday he took to his social-media site, X, to say: “Tesla will spend well over $500M expanding our Supercharger network to create thousands of NEW chargers this year."

Any shift in Tesla’s rapid building pace opens up a massive opportunity, though there is no obvious No. 2 in the race to build a U.S. highway network.

Companies from Walmart to Mercedes to BP to a consortium of carmakers have made bold promises to build their own fast-charging networks across the U.S. Billions of dollars are pledged, but so far no one has built anything close to what Tesla has created.

The turmoil comes at a key moment with companies competing for the first awards for more than $5 billion in public funding from the 2021 federal infrastructure law to increase the availability of highway chargers.

Walmart says it will leverage its massive real-estate portfolio to launch its own fast-charging network at thousands of U.S. locations by 2030. For now, it offers chargers from third-party providers at 280 stores.

Ionna, a $1 billion joint venture of seven automakers—BMW, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz and Stellantis—set a 30,000-charger target for North America. It received federal regulatory approval in February but hasn’t opened a site yet and is still hiring staff.

“It’s the wild west out there," said Bill Ferro, co-founder and chief technology officer at Paren, a software company focused on EV charging reliability. “Anybody and everybody is trying to put EV charging stations in place."

Tesla stunned the nascent charging industry with a massive layoff in its Supercharger group. It was adding new locations at a rapid clip and has started opening its well-regarded web of fast chargers to other kinds of vehicles. Many viewed it as a solution to the country’s charging conundrum.

Tesla has also scooped up about $29 million in public funding at 69 sites, more locations for the federal highway network than any other company, according to data from the firm EVAdoption.

More fast chargers are needed along highways to overcome “range anxiety"—the fear that EV drivers will run out of power while traveling long distances.

Tesla has more than 25,500 Superchargers in the U.S., part of a global network of more than 50,000 fast chargers, according to government data and the company. Tesla also has slower “Destination" chargers in places such as hotels and shopping centers where drivers are parked for longer periods.

No single company can replicate Tesla’s pace in the near term in the U.S. It has built half of the fast chargers added in the U.S. this year, according to government data. The equipment can repower a battery in around 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the car.

One reason there aren’t more chargers: the business model. The publicly traded charging providers outside of Tesla’s system haven’t turned a profit.

Charging is a challenging business if it is based only on selling electricity as fuel, said Nick Nigro, founder of the research and consulting group Atlas Public Policy. It requires having equipment in use frequently, which can be hard in many spots until more EV drivers hit the road.

Automakers can use charging as a marketing strategy like Tesla has, while retailers can lure customers to spend inside stores.

“If you’re basing it on the value that you can extract from somebody who is charging, then that’s a different model," Nigro said.

The nation’s charging network “will continue to grow based on investments from the federal government, the private sector and states," a spokesman for the federal government’s Joint Office of Transportation and Energy said.

Volkswagen’s Electrify America spent much of 2022 and 2023 swapping 700 older, spotty chargers with new, more reliable equipment. It has some of the industry’s biggest plans this year: replacing another 800 pieces of equipment at existing sites and installing 800 chargers at new locations, increasing its network by about 20%.

Regardless of the pace of charger construction by Tesla or other companies, “There’s a hell of a lot of work to do," said Robert Barrosa, CEO of Electrify America, which was created as part of the Dieselgate settlement to resolve allegations that Volkswagen cheated on emissions tests.

Walmart is one of the few fast-charging entrants that has said it would compete on cost. The company has stores within 10 miles of most Americans.

Given that footprint, “we’re uniquely positioned to provide people with a convenient, reliable and affordable charging experience," said Vishal Kapadia, senior vice president of energy transformation at Walmart.

One potential boon is that charging takes longer than pumping gasoline. Fuel retailers in Europe have found that about twice as many EV drivers come inside the stores and spend money as gasoline drivers, said Mark Morelli, president and CEO of Vontier, which manages the software for about 60,000 charging ports globally.

“There’s a much higher natural conversion rate," Morelli said.

Oil giant BP last year agreed to pay $1.3 billion in cash for a chain of about 280 U.S. fuel and convenience stores and roadside restaurants from TravelCenters of America. BP plans to spend $1 billion in EV charging across the U.S. by 2030, including an agreement last October to buy $100 million in Tesla-manufactured fast chargers for some of its sites.

BP CEO Murray Auchincloss said Tuesday that the purchase agreement hasn’t been affected by Tesla’s layoffs. BP, like Tesla, has been among the companies competing for and winning federal charging dollars.

If Tesla were to slow its pace of adding charging sites, “I guess then that’s an opportunity for us in the United States to take more space," Auchincloss said Tuesday.

Drivers are pulling up often enough that public fast chargers in 18 states have turned profitable, with use rates—a key industry measure—averaging more than 15% in states such as Florida, Nevada and Texas, according to data tracked by the firm Stable Auto.

Mercedes plans to spend $1 billion on public charging in North America that would be available to any driver. It has opened a flagship charging station in Atlanta as well as Mercedes-branded chargers at a dozen Buc-ee’s locations in the Southeast.

Andrew Cornelia, CEO of Mercedes-Benz charging in North America and a former Tesla executive, said there is enough consumer demand that companies investing in charging now can do so to “support EV adoption, the customer experience and to make money" instead of seeing it as only a marketing exercise.

Jenny Strasburg contributed to this article.

Write to Jennifer Hiller at jennifer.hiller@wsj.com

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