Audi takes aim at Tesla with Electrify America charging network

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Los Angeles – Actor Robert Downey Jr. introduced the battery-powered Audi e-tron GT concept car at the Los Angeles Auto Show here this week, confiding to assembled media, “I’ve been having an affair for over a decade with ... the brand.”

But exclusive introductions by Tony Stark aren’t the only thing that sets Audi apart at this year’s show.

The company’s e-tron models will be the first EVs to take advantage of Electrify America’s national DC supercharging network, putting Audi on par with Tesla for quick charging.

Funded by Audi parent Volkswagen as part of a $2 billion settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency that punished the German automaker for the Dieselgate emissions-cheating scandal, Electrify America promises the first supercharging network outside Tesla’s proprietary DC infrastructure. And it will be open to all electric vehicles, not just Audis and Volkswagens.

In addition to its electric vehicles’ innovative design and high performance, industry experts credit Tesla’s foresight in building its own charging network — in a country starved of charging options — with giving the brand staying power.

Where most interstate EV travelers require an overnight stay on a 240-volt AC charger (twice the capability of a typical, 110-volt wall plug) to refuel (30 miles of range gained per hour of charging), Tesla customers can stop for lunch while supercharging — and then drive another 200 miles to their destinations.

The Audi e-tron GT concept car was revealed at the LA Auto Show.

In Los Angeles on Tuesday, Electrify America CEO Giovanni Palazzo gave details of the company’s progress, promising that 500 charging locations – 160 of them in California – will be built by June of next year. EA’s goal is 2,000 stations nationwide by the end of 2019.

Palazzo did not say how many stalls would be at each station nor whether all will get 150 kW fast-chargers. Some of Tesla’s superchargers, for example, offer less than 100 kW.

“Our goal is to move America from traditional cars to pure EVs,” he said, lamenting that 80 percent of EV charging currently takes place in the home. “Most EVs are a secondary vehicle. We would like to make it the first car.”

He acknowledged challenges including acquiring sites for stations, government permits (“it’s a mess”), and electricity costs. “The charging costs are too high,” he said. “We want to change that. We want to engage with utilities.”

The largest spend of the VW-EPA settlement — $800 billion — will be allocated to California, which is the U.S. leader in EV sales. While Electrify America has already entered into agreements with Audi and start-up EV-maker Lucid, Giovanni stressed that Electrify America is “brand neutral” and will welcome all cars to its chargers. He predicted 1.5 million EV on the road by 2025, with sales coming from an expected 70 different models.

Audi's e-tron rollout begins with an SUV that goes on sale early next year. That will be followed by an e-tron Sportback and then the 2020 production version of the GT unveiled by Downey. The e-tron GT in particular promises formidable performance specs with 590 horsepower and 0-60 time of just 3.5 seconds.

Audi says that the e-tron’s 150-kW DC charging capability – faster than Tesla models’ 120 kW – will allow it to charge its estimated 250-mile range battery to 80 percent in a half-hour. That’s slightly quicker than, say, a Tesla Model S P85 (with 265 miles of range) which claims 80 percent of charge in 40 minutes.

Following closely on the heels of Audi is Byton, a Chinese-funded startup that plans to bring its 150 kW-capable EVs to market by late 2019. The Byton K-Byte, introduced here along with the M-Byte crossover, promises similar range to the Audi — but with a promised 325-mile range upgrade.

Electrify America and Tesla face an uphill task in creating their own infrastructures without corresponding public demand for EVs. They are bucking historical trends – gas stations and cellphone tower networks, for example, where infrastructure typically follows product adoption.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.