Tesla speeds up free nationwide charging network, 20-minute quick repower

If there's one nut left uncracked by Tesla Motors, it's the inherent range limits of electric vehicles. The Model S sedan can travel about 270 miles on a full charge, but the combination of lack of high-power vehicle plug-in stations and lengthy charging times keeps the Model S from being of use for a classic American road trip. Today, Tesla co-founder Elon Musk revealed the company would speed the expansion of its free Supercharger network to make a coast-to-coast journey viable within two years — and a new charging system that would drastically shorten how long Model S sedan owners would have to wait for juice.

Tesla says that starting from the few sites mostly along the East and West Coast today, it will triple its Supercharger locations by the end of the month. Within six months, it will expand to most of the upper Midwest and Canada; and before the next 12 months will have an intercontinental network of Superchargers that Musk said should cover 80 percent to 90 percent of the U.S. population. Within two years, Tesla will aim for full coverage, with more than 200 Supercharger stations.

Tesla vows that its owners can use the Superchargers for free, for life; the chargers only work with Teslas, and can handle between four and 10 cars at a time. While a full recharge at the Supercharger currently takes more than 40 minutes, Musk said Tesla would soon deploy a higher-power charging option that would restore three hours of driving time in 20 minutes, using a 120-kW charge — about 60 times more power than a typical house uses in a day — while not harming the Model S battery packs.

Over time, Musk says he plans for the Superchargers to be powered mostly by solar panels, with large battery packs in the chargers that store spare energy and recharge vehicles. "These stations will operate even if the entire national grid goes down," Musk said. "Even if there's a zombie apocalypse, you'll still be able to travel using the Tesla Supercharging system."

For the past few weeks, everything's been coming up Milhouse for Tesla and Musk; it made its first quarterly profit, saw its stock rise to more than $100 per share and paid off its $465 million U.S. loan nine years early. Yet Tesla still has a long road ahead; at a current run rate of 20,000 luxury sedans a year, it's a mouse among giants in the auto industry. Tesla's first SUV, the Model X, isn't due until late 2014, but Musk has already said the company will follow with a cheaper, smaller electric car in three to four years — which, he said today, would also use the Supercharger network for free. As one wait ends, another begins.