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Tesla will open thousands of its chargers for use with any EV, White House says

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tesla drivers are currently members of an exclusive club. Only they can roll up to those distinctive red-and-white Superchargers, plug in with no fuss and refill their battery super-fast. Well, by next year, Tesla will open up a small portion of its proprietary charging network to the rest of us. The company has been promising to do this for years without following through, but now the White House says it has struck a deal. So what does this mean for drivers and for the company? NPR's Camila Domonoske is here to explain. Hey, Camila.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So this was a big selling point for Tesla, its exclusive charger network. Why did it change the policy?

DOMONOSKE: Well, the short answer is that billions of federal dollars speak really loudly. It was a requirement for getting some of this money from the Biden administration promoting new chargers. Tesla will also be able to make money charging people who use these chargers in the future. But there are serious drawbacks to weigh, right? There's the risk of losing customers who are like, well, hey; maybe I don't need a Tesla for my next vehicle because I can still use the chargers or the risk that the Superchargers might get too crowded. That could be a drawback. So next week, Tesla's going to talk to its investors about its strategy, and we'll probably hear a little more about how it's balancing the pros and cons here.

SHAPIRO: Why was the White House so focused on getting Tesla to open up these chargers?

DOMONOSKE: Well, charger availability is a huge part of why some people are reluctant to buy electric vehicles. You know, even if they don't go on road trips very often, they really want to be able to when they want to. And right now, the country doesn't have enough chargers - particularly fast chargers - for that to be feasible. And the ones that exist, they are not very reliable except for Tesla. The Tesla Supercharger network just works. So it's going to take some hardware and software changes for it to work with other vehicles, but that is allegedly going to happen. We should emphasize, though, it's not going to happen to the entire network. Tesla has agreed to open up 3,500 Superchargers, and that's out of some 17,000 chargers that they have today.

SHAPIRO: OK. So that's a pretty small percentage. How much of a difference will that actually make?

DOMONOSKE: Well, it depends on which chargers they open up. Tesla did something really interesting. They built chargers all over the country, including places where they aren't used very much because they wanted people to feel like if they bought a Tesla, they could go anywhere. Other companies, when they're trying to decide if they want to build chargers, they're like, well, I'll put them where there are electric vehicles so they'll get used. And then people who don't have electric vehicles yet, they don't want to buy them until there are chargers. It's a chicken-and-egg problem, right? And Tesla kind of sidestepped that.

I see cars.com. They looked at places where there are a lot of Tesla Superchargers right now and basically no other chargers, very few other options. It's places like West Virginia, Mississippi, Indiana, Montana. Where I live, about 2 hours outside D.C., the only fast charger in town is a Tesla. So if they open up those Superchargers, which also aren't super-crowded - so they might like that idea - that could actually be really impactful for these areas that are really just deserts for these fast chargers.

SHAPIRO: And what does this all mean for the overall transition to electric vehicles?

DOMONOSKE: Well, fast chargers are a big deal. Having access to this, like I said, is a huge barrier. It's not the only barrier. There's also home charging, which is crucial. And what's behind all these chargers? The electric grid needs to produce a lot more power, a lot more clean power, have more wires to send it over. That's not as visible to the average driver. But all of that is just as important for pulling off this big switch.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thanks a lot.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.