How far can you go in a Tesla?

February 6, 2013, 10:00 AM UTC
A Tesla Model S sedan parked at the company’s Supercharge station in Tejon Ranch, Calif.

FORTUNE — The car is fast and smooth: zero to 60 mph in four seconds with none of the rumble of internal combustion. It demands to be driven at high speed, on hilly, winding roads. We tried to oblige. This was a problem.

The plan — to drive the all-electric Tesla Model S from Los Angeles to San Francisco — was simple. Could we (my father and I) travel in an electric automobile that went so far, so fast, without compromise? Could we take a great California road trip over scenic routes so abundant in the Golden State? The answer came 15 hours after we set out, rolling into a mall parking lot in Central California at 11 p.m.  The battery was fully drained; the dashboard read charge immediately. After some cursing and desperate scanning we found salvation: a charging station. It would be an hour before we had enough juice to travel the last 20 miles to our hotel. We waited in silence, staring into the glowing screens of our smartphones.

MORE: Photos from the Tesla road trip

It is predicted that 2013 will be the Year of the Electric Car. Chevy Volt sales tripled in 2012 from the previous 12 months, and the waiting list for Tesla’s pricier sedan before it won
Motor Trend’s Car of the Year
was 13,000 long. If you put down your $5,000 deposit for a $60,000 to $100,000 Tesla (TSLA) today, you’ll be waiting until autumn. Though pure electrics represent just 0.3% of all cars on the road, sales are expected to increase 40% every year for the next decade. Now that a fleet of faster-driving, longer-range electrics is here, where does that leave the charging stations? The answer, from the startups building the networks to the car makers, is: We’re working on it.

A charging station costs $10,000 to $40,000. About half is for the unit itself; the rest, for the installation. Even then the rate of charge varies wildly: from a slow trickle of 10 miles of range for 30 minutes plugged in to 150 miles in the same span. Terry O’Day, the director of California business development for charge startup eVgo, describes its business model as “like a cellphone network.” Customers pay a monthly subscription — up to $89 — for access to eVgo’s stations. Tesla owners get access to its few Supercharge stations for free. Michael Farkas, CEO of CarCharging, another startup, says of Tesla’s stations: “It’s more [founder] Elon Musk’s magic than reality. They’re there to alleviate a major concern — range anxiety — and egg along the rest of the market.”

J.B. Straubel, CTO and co-founder at Tesla, says the budget for the company’s charging stations comes out of marketing. Tesla spends little on ads, but its in-mall stores serve a similar purpose; the company does not use traditional dealerships.

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“We’re being very opportunistic about this,” Straubel says of the charge stations, which, so far, work only on Tesla Model S sedans. “We don’t have a single cookie-cutter installation — we have a team scouting locations.”

On the second day of the drive, we stopped at one such, in Gilroy, Calif. — a town known for its garlic industry and outlet malls. The Supercharge stations covered four parking spaces. “Ambitious,” my father said. Then, not 10 minutes after plugging in, another Tesla pulled up. Then another — its owner had come from San Jose because he had something to return at the outlets, plus he was curious. Our battery was full after just an hour. Conservatively, we could drive another 280 miles. Or we could find some twisty roads over hills and really open her up. We went with the latter.

A shorter version of this story appeared in the February 4, 2013 issue of Fortune.

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