Big Hurdle for Tesla: Building a Charging Network in China

I wrote the piece below for Automobile and Parts, a Chinese publication.  Since I wrote it news came out that the State Grid will allow private investment in charging networks.  But no timeline was mentioned.  And no news regarding whether South Grid will follow suit.  Allowing private investment offers a sliver of hope for Tesla. But as always in China, implementation will be the tricky part.

Tesla’s business model – a non-automotive company that has successfully produced and marketed a pure electric luxury vehicle – seems to be much admired by some parties in China. And despite disputes regarding its distribution model with automotive dealers in some states in the U.S., Tesla has sold well here.  Based on that popularity, Tesla founder Elon Musk and his representatives in China are confidently predicting that Tesla will sell around 5,000 Model S electric sedans in China in 2014 and as many as 22,000 in 2015.

Those sales numbers are based on an underestimation of the difficulties Tesla will face in China, however, and won’t be achieved. Furthermore, Tesla will likely have trouble making a profit in China if the costs and difficulty of building out a distribution network and charging network are considered.

First, there is the price of the car itself. Tesla made a big deal out of the fact that it will charge “only” 734,000 RMB for a Model S sedan with an 85 kWh battery. That is the cost of the vehicle plus shipping and handling, customs and duties, and a value-added tax.  Tesla’s electric vehicles come with several optional battery sizes; larger batteries cost more but provide more range.  A car with an 85kWh battery provides about 300 miles per charge.

Tesla says it goal is to make the same level of profit per car no matter where it is sold.  Even if Tesla isn’t making more profit, however, the price for the Model S is still more expensive then the majority of luxury cars sold in China. That price is not set in stone, by the way.  Tesla will adjust the cost of the Model S in China when the USD/RMB exchange rate fluctuates, according to a Tesla spokesperson. Would someone prefer to buy an electric vehicle, even a Tesla, over say a similarly-priced gasoline-powered Porsche 911? Only a few would.

If someone does want to buy a Tesla in China, they first have to find a Tesla store. Tesla’s distribution model relies on company-owned stores rather than franchised dealerships.  In the U.S., cars are sold through dealerships owned by individuals rather than the automakers themselves. That has made Tesla the target of a handful of lawsuits here in the U.S. by the owners of dealerships. Those lawsuits claim Tesla violated the state laws governing auto dealer ownership (each of the 50 states in the U.S. has its own auto franchise law.).

In China, Tesla may not run into such lawsuits, but will need to build out a nationwide Tesla store network to even begin to reach the sales numbers it predicts.

So far, it has one store, in Beijing. Elon Musk has said Tesla will have stores or service centers in six metropolitan areas in China by the end of 2014. Let’s say Tesla succeeds in opening those stores by then. Will each of those stores manage to sell nearly 1,000 units each? Let’s assume they will. To achieve sales of 22,000 in 2015, Tesla will have to quadruple the number of stores it has in China, and each will have to sell nearly 1,000 units each.

I think distribution i.e. a network of stores will be the easy element of achieving Tesla’s ambitions in China, however. I believe the biggest barrier to its success will be its inability to construct a nationwide charging network. Rather than rely on public charging, Tesla constructs a network of Superchargers that only owners of its EVs can use. To date it has installed 74 Supercharger stations in North America. Each station costs US$150,000 to build, according to a Tesla spokesperson. This does not include maintenance or monthly energy costs. “We cannot yet speak to cost of location of Supercharger stations in China,” said the spokesperson. “Elon plans to visit in March and more details will be unveiled at that time.”

Elon may find that building Supercharger stations in China will be not only expensive, but very difficult. For one, each station charges at 120kw. “That is more power than an electric bus consumes,” exclaimed an executive working on EV charging networks at a foreign automaker in China.

He also asked if Tesla has approval from the State Grid and the Southern Grid , China’s two largest utilities, to construct the Supercharger network. That is, are they willing to provide the power? What’s in it for them? Then there are the Supercharger stations themselves, said the executive. Have they been approved by Chinese regulators?

Elon Musk has succeeded when others have thought he would fail, and his self-confidence is well-earned. He founded and sold Pay Pal, an online money transfer service, for $1.5 billion. Musk also founded and still runs SpaceX, a company which designs and launches rockets. In China, however, he may meet his match.

Article by Alysha Webb, a freelance automotive journalist and founder of ChinaEV Blog.

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One comment on “Big Hurdle for Tesla: Building a Charging Network in China


Tesla has done the impossible every month since they stated, the first new car company in the USA in 50 years, 80 Super Chargers already in the USA, best rating for looks, feature,safety ,range, efficient, and fast. A few US States won’t allow direct sales so they sell on the internet, They have pre-sales of 10,000 on their model X SUV and everyone is already talking about their new Gen III.
They will take Europe by storm and also China.

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