Amid the recent hype about the nationwide expansion of the free Tesla Supercharger fast-charging network, one very important detail has been largely overlooked. Taking a page from the mobile-phone-company playbook where unlimited data is actually capped, free charging is not necessarily always free.
When Tesla announced the Supercharger network in 2012, CEO Elon Musk made it clear that Model S owners would be able to get quick charges, free of charge during road-trip pit stops. What was not discussed in any detail was that only the high-end Model S with an 85-kilowatt-hour battery includes the DC charging hardware in the $72,400 base price.
Customers that opt for the more affordable 60-kilowatt-hour Model S will have to pony up an extra $2000 on top of the $62,400 starting tariff to get the DC charging circuitry installed. Given that the 60-kilowatt-hour Model S has an EPA-estimated driving range of 208 miles, those owners are more likely to actually need quick-charging capability than their more well-heeled counterparts.
On the other hand, with a 200--mile range, Model S drivers that don't regularly take long road trips may be better off foregoing the extra charging hardware and just use the recently announced battery quick-swap capability.
While the fast charging is nominally free, drivers will be charged for battery swaps. Prices for the swaps are not final, but Musk announced that it would be comparable to filling a gas tank on a conventional car. Assuming a price of about $50-$75, the price of the charger would cover 26-40 battery swaps.
Relying on standard-level, Mode-2 (240-volt) charging for the majority of the time and getting battery swaps only when needed may also be better for the long-term health of the battery than high-speed 100-kilowatt-hour charging. As always, caveat emptor.