Unlike other EV chargers, Tesla’s are easy to find, fast to fill and, for many, free to use. John Evans visits the perfect place for both car and driver to recharge their batteries
Spending a few hours interviewing drivers at a Tesla Supercharger location is like playing whack-a-mole: no sooner have you finished quizzing one than another has wafted silently into another bay, plugged in and gone to Starbucks. You go after them and another turns up.
The plan had been to arrive at 10.30am to prepare for the promised 11am-6pm peak period: have a coffee, ready a few questions on the lines of what’s it like and do you come here often – that sort of thing.
What I hadn’t reckoned on was that South Mimms services, tucked away in the armpit of the A1(M) and M25, is one of the electric marque’s busiest Supercharger locations.
I arrived with 13% power left. I wasn’t worried: a friend reckons his S was still running with –16%!
So when I arrived, four of its 12 chargers were in use – and was that another Tesla owner I could see plugging his motor in? Better collar him before he goes for that latte…
“I’ve arrived with 13% power left,” says Model S owner John Stephenson. “I wasn’t worried: a friend reckons his S was still running with minus 16%! We’ll have a coffee while it goes back to 85%. It should take around 45 minutes.”
Linda, his wife, likes the South Mimms set-up: “There are plenty of chargers so we’ve never had to wait, but you soon learn not to use adjacent ones because they share their power and take longer to charge.”
Plenty of chargers? True, South Mimms has 12 of the totem-style chargers and during our five hours at the site no more than five were being used at any time. But how busy will they be when the Model 3 arrives?
Tesla wouldn’t confirm the number of advance orders it has taken in the UK for the new model but, given that worldwide the figure stands at 420,000, it’s reasonable to assume a few of them will be jostling for charging space at South Mimms, as well as at the car maker’s 49 other Supercharger locations.
The company says it has a plan. It’s increasing the size of existing locations, as well as rolling out additional ones. For example, its Hopwood Park services location near Birmingham has recently gained a further 10 chargers (from six to 16).
The trouble is, short of taking more car parking space, I’m not sure where it will find the room at South Mimms. Fortunately, each Supercharger powers two bays but, as Linda pointed out, they share power, meaning the charging rate drops. Better make that two lattes at Starbucks…
Can’t spare the time? Tesla has 500 so-called ‘destination chargers’ in reserve at places such as hotels, spas and shopping centres where you can pop in for a quick top-up on the hoof. There are also thousands more third-party charge sites around the UK.
But it’s nicer to breeze into a pukka Supercharger location like the one at South Mimms, away from the hoi polloi fighting for parking spaces in their old gas guzzlers. So nice that a surprising number of the Tesla drivers recharging at South Mimms admitted they only live around the corner. Drivers such as Paul Walker, who works in corporate gifting: “I’ve got one of Tesla’s domestic chargers but I haven’t installed it. South Mimms is between my home and office, so it suits me to pop in and catch up with work. I like the interruption!”
And Bernard Greenwold, a property developer: “I only live around the corner and the office isn’t far but I’m here twice a week because it’s so convenient.”
Barry Chapman, a civil engineer, is another who admits to letting his home charger gather dust while he gets his power at South Mimms.
There’s a comedy moment when Sharon Christof hops out of her Model X only to find the Supercharger cable won’t reach. She jumps back in and reverses closer until the car’s back wheels are touching the ridge marker set into the bay floor. “You’d think that given how often I’m here, I’d know how to park,” she says. “We have a domestic charger but this is more convenient and, of course, the power is free.”
Free? In fact, every new Tesla comes with an annual allowance of 1000 miles of the stuff. In addition, those people who bought their Tesla before the company’s free-power-for-life offer ended can refer one new owner to Tesla to receive it as well. Many of the drivers we spoke to were on this deal.
The ease with which Tesla owners plumb their cars into the Superchargers is an impressive sight. No wonder business drivers clocking up proper mileages have taken to the cars.
One of them is Andrew Hodgson, CEO of a major automotive supply company. In the past two years, he’s racked up 45,000 miles at the wheel of his Model S. “Charging the car is very simple while the car itself has been totally reliable,” he says.
Hodgson works in London but lives in Norwich: “I’m just topping it up here. I’ll take a few client calls and have a coffee, then get on my way. Once gone, I never hold back and I’ve never experienced range anxiety.”
Sean Mulhern, an outside broadcast engineer, has done 38,000 miles in two years in his Model S; Andy Brown, a software writer, 30,000 miles since April 2017 (“My Model X has been from Monaco to Scotland”); and Hayley Elton 20,000 miles in 12 months in her Model S. Gary Woodhatch, a company director, is on 11,000 miles since December in his. “South Mimms is a great place for networking,” he says. “I’m sure we’ve got business out of it.”
Many of the Tesla owners I speak to are self-employed and their cars a business expense. To them, the financial advantages of EV ownership are obvious.
“To me, as a company owner, the first-year allowance on corporation tax available on an electric car was a no-brainer,” says Model S driver Paul Richman, owner of a video production company. “Buying the Model S was the only way I could afford to have a luxury car. There’s a sting in the tail at the end of the contract in the shape of a £6000 tax bill but, for the moment, I’m happy.”
As, it seems, were all of the 15 Tesla drivers I encountered during the course of my five-hour visit. Well, almost all. Amit Patel, a property developer and South Mimms regular, was unconvinced by his Model S’s interior finish, the small number of options and the drab colours. “To be honest, I’m an Audi man,” he said. “It was the Tesla’s free electricity that hooked me.”
Now there’s a thing: how busy will South Mimms and other Supercharger locations be when those cash-conscious Model S owners have to start paying for their electricity? Watch those spaces… L
PHOTOGRAPHY John Bradshaw
SUPERCHARGER VS CHARGEMASTER
During five hours at Tesla’s South Mimms Supercharger location, I interviewed 15 drivers. Tesla later confirmed that by the end of the day, 76 had visited it.
Compare this figure with the seven drivers of an assortment of electric cars, none of them Teslas, who during one day in June visited Chargemaster’s location beside the M25 at the Runnymede on Thames hotel in Egham, a place the vehicle charging company claims is among its busiest.
In fairness to Chargemaster, its small number can in part be explained by the location’s low visibility, the provision of just
one charging point and the fact that although the power is cheap, it’s not free.
All that said, Tesla’s set-up kicked Chargemaster’s into touch in two key ways: the joined-up user experience it offers and the confidence the Tesla name inspires in drivers. Now, if a charge company can replicate that but serve all makes, it’ll clean up.