EV infrastructure: What Ford & Tesla's charger partnership means for drivers

Ford and Tesla are partnering up to give drivers of Ford EVs access to Tesla's Superchargers. Plug In America Executive Director Joel Levin and GreenBiz Group Director on Transportation Vartan Badalian discuss what drivers can expect as the U.S. EV charging network expands.

Video transcript

- Some called it a game changer, or at least a big step forward. Last week, Tesla and Ford announced that Ford's electric vehicles would be granted access to the approximately 12,000 Tesla Supercharger stations in North America. Now, that surprise deal is expected to go ahead in the spring of next year and makes Ford the first automaker to become an explicit part of the EV leader's network.

Now, the announcement comes as the US tries to scale up its electrification efforts. The Biden Administration has earmarked billions in funding for the sector, so the EV market is changing rapidly. But what can we expect to see, and what will those changes do to the economy and the companies at the forefront?

We're joined by Plug In American executive director, Joel Levin, and GreenBiz group director of transportation, Vartan Badalian, as well to discuss. Thank you both for joining us.

Joel, I want to start with you here. In terms of this announcement, what struck you about the fact that you have this legacy carmaker now teaming up with Tesla here on the superchargers?

- Yeah, it's a really big deal. We were really excited to see it. I mean, one of the big challenges that people have is that the public charging network is not as reliable as it could be in the US. A lot of people complain about broken chargers or chargers being busy or hard to find them. And the Tesla network really gets high marks. The users really love it. That's what we've seen.

And so in Europe, Tesla has opened up their network to other car makes, but not in the US. So for them to do that with Ford here is a really big deal. Tesla has a really significant advantage in terms of people who like to travel long distances and go on road trips because their network is so widely regarded.

And so now, Ford, by gaining access to that, that's really a positive thing for people that are looking for cars to go on a road trip. I think it's really a big plus for Ford.

- And, Vartan, I mean, if you're a non-Tesla or a non-Ford owner, and you're looking at this and looking at some of your, perhaps, your public charging options and the reliability issues there, what should you think about this?

- Yeah, it's a very valid question. I think there's two groups of changes that are going to start happening. You have the OEMs that are quickly, I think, going to start catching on to what Ford did because the CCS market, as Joel mentioned, is struggling with reliability concerns. So I would be wanting to suspect that in the coming years, we will see more OEMs catch on and deploy what Tesla's Ford connector is for their vehicles as well, largely given the reliability benefits of their network.

On the other hand, if you're a consumer purchasing vehicles and looking at the market of EVs that exist, there are a lot of great EVs that are on the market right now. And the number one reason why I think consumers now pick Tesla over other car makes is because of the Supercharger network. So it's something that the industry is probably caught on to, and we will see some transformational change come out from it.

- And, Joel, what sort of changes are you expecting here? I mean, when you have Tesla, we saw that the recent report there showing that it's, in terms of global sales, the Model Y at the top of the list there beating out Toyota in terms there. So then-- but when you look at the infrastructure and you want that to catch up, keeping in mind, a lot of these numbers were China-focused, but where does that leave the US in terms of the companies that are at the forefront of really stepping up the electric charging stations?

- Right. Well, I would put it in perspective. Keep in mind that charging an EV is not the same as buying gasoline, so the majority of people get most of their fuel at home. So people generally charge at home or at work. The vast majority of all charging people do overnight while they're sleeping.

And so with an EV, you wake up every morning, generally, and it's like having a full tank of gas. So the charging network is not quite as critical as the network of gas stations in that you don't-- you're not using it every day. For most people, you're using it on road trips.

And then, of course, Tesla is still half the market in the US. So for the Tesla drivers, this doesn't change anything. And so it's not that dramatic of a hindrance, and I think that the public EV networks are focused on trying to solve this problem. The federal NEVI program that's going to create a national charging network across the country along large highways is very focused on trying to improve the driver experience, improve reliability, and improve the way that people pay.

And so I think this is a problem that's going to go away over time as the federal charging network rolls out because they've created very high standards for it.

- And, Vartan, what do you think is going to be the next inflection point, the next catalyst that really gets more EV adoption up to speed here?

- I mean, largely, the point we've been talking about. I think it is going to be a unanimous consensus that EV charging is more reliable than it currently is right now. Joel's points are very accurate. A lot of the charging experience happens at home or at work, and it's not typically on the fast charger in a public setting. But when you have more and more stories coming out increasingly in the American culture of going on road trips, people want that convenience of a fast-charge quickly and, of course, reliably, given the purchase of a $20,000 to $34,000 vehicle.

So I think once we start seeing more reliable chargers built in the public network that grows as the federal push pushes that forward, we will start seeing this next wave of adopters. Because right now, up until this point, we've had-- we're approaching, actually, around 10% EV adoption for new-car sales in the US, much more in California, and somewhat similar around Europe and elsewhere.

And that's largely been early adopters. But now, we're moving into the non-early adopter phase, and I think the charger reliability story is going to be where we transition to a bulk-- a greater bulk of consumers.

- And, Joel, also then, in terms of dealerships, the availability of some of these EVs, how affordable they are, and even whether they're a good value at the moment when you try and look at the pricing, what is your options? What are your options for that for people who are perhaps saying, is it worth the investment upfront, being that it is higher in a lot of cases than your traditional petrol-powered car?

- Right. Weirdly enough, it's not. It seems like it is. What's really important-- so a couple of questions. Let me unpack that. First of all, in terms of supply, about six months ago towards the end of last year, there was really very limited supply of EVs available in dealerships. It's gotten significantly better since then, so it's easier to find available cars right now.

In terms of the value, what I'd say is what's important is to look at not the upfront cost of the car, but look at the total cost of ownership. Because with EVs, the price of fueling is so dramatically cheaper, particularly if you're buying your electricity at home. It's typically somewhere in the range of probably $1 to $2 a gallon gasoline equivalent, but it's a lot cheaper than gasoline.

And then, maintenance is also much lower. "Consumer Reports" did a study, and they showed that over the lifetime of the car, maintenance is about half the price of a gasoline car because there's no oil, there's no spark plugs, there's very few belts and things to change. So EVs just have much lower maintenance.

So when you're looking at the price of an EV, don't just look at the upfront price. Look at the monthly cost of owning it compared to a gas car. And if you're looking at apples to apples, that equivalent EV to a gas car-- don't compare a Tesla to an inexpensive gas car. Compare to similar cars, and you'll see that EVs are not actually more expensive overall in terms of the cost of ownership. So yeah, so they're a great deal.

Used EVs, in particular, I think are a really attractive deal. People tend to shy away from them because there's a fear that they're going to have problems with the batteries. But in fact, the batteries are pretty reliable. People-- we get this question all the time. What's it going to cost me when I have to change the battery in my EV?

Well, people don't. Unless there's a defect in your battery, in which case it's probably covered by the warranty, people very rarely change the battery. It'll probably last as long as the rest of the car. It's like, how often do you change the engine in your car? Well, not very much.

- Some important context there when you're looking at that initial price tag versus the length of the course of the car. A great discussion. Thank you both for joining us this morning. Joel Levin, Plug In America executive director, and Vartan Badalian, GreenBiz group director of transportation. Thank you so much.