Tesla drivers only: Car maker creates its own 'electric highway'

WOODBURN, Ore. - The nation's electric vehicle infrastructure is expanding by leaps and bounds and car companies are doing everything they can to ride what, by all accounts, is the wave of the future.

Take Tesla Motors, for example, which just debuted the latest in their nationwide network of 19 Supercharger stations. On Thursday, Tesla cut the ribbon on a charging station in Woodburn, Ore., the first one in the state.

Washington state already has two of the stations (Tesla just recently opened one in Centralia and another in Burlington). And there are nine in California. A few more are scattered in other places across the United States. Tesla's goal is to have around 200 of them across the nation by the time they are done.

Tesla's Supercharger stations, which the company bills as the 'fastest charging stations on the planet,' cater to Tesla Model S owners. Drivers can stop, plug in and get a half charge in just 20 minutes - for free. It's a perk for Tesla owners and the charging stations will only work for those vehicles. Right now, Tesla owners can travel between Vancouver, B.C. and Los Angeles, for example, using these Supercharger stations along the I-5 corridor and the trip wouldn't cost them a dime (at least in mileage).

Of course, the obvious question is this - why would the average Joe care about a network of Tesla-only charging stations? After all, these elite electric cars are not cheap. They start out at around $70,000 and go up from there.

Oregon State Representative Phil Barnhart, D-Eugene (right), talks to a gentleman about Tesla's new Supercharger station in Woodburn, Ore., on Thursday, August 29, 2013. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman,

That's the question we asked Oregon State Representative Phil Barnhart, D-Eugene, who owns a Tesla and was at Thursday's unveiling of the Supercharger station in Woodburn, Ore.

Because he drives a Tesla, Barnhart is obviously excited about these charging stations. But he said this isn't just about making life easier for Tesla owners like himself. He said we need to step back, think about the larger picture and realize what this represents in the new age of the automobile.

"The first cellphone was a brick," he said. "It weighed like a brick. It cost $10,000. If somebody didn't buy the thing, we wouldn't have this (pulls his iPhone out of his pocket). You've got to have early adopters."

"I really want this company to succeed," Barnhart added. "Because if they're successful, we'll soon go from the brick to the iPhone."

Tesla's branded charging stations got us to thinking about another question - will other car makers follow suit? Could there one day be banks of electric charging stations for Hondas, Toyotas, Nissans, etc.?

Nobody knows exactly how this will all play out, but Barnhart said it will be interesting to watch. Like many folks, he compares it to how the world changed when cars were first made.

"When cars first started a hundred years ago, there was no agreement about anything," he said. "This car (the Tesla) has an accelerator in a place you would expect to find one and a brake in the place you would expect to find one. Well, those original cars didn't. You had to figure it out with each different car. It's going to be awhile before this thing settles in and everybody gets it figured out."

As you can tell, Barnhart is a staunch advocate of the push to build a robust electric vehicle infrastructure in Oregon. The way he sees it, this is not only the future, but a window of opportunity that could get the state back on track.

"We import $8 billion a year in oil products, almost all of it for transportation," he said. "Imagine what we could do with that money if we didn't do that, right? Oregon needs more jobs, we need to put more people back to work. One of the great ways of doing that would be to use that money in some other ways."

We asked Barnhart where Oregon stands in the big picture of electric vehicles and he said the state is ahead of the game.

"We compare ourselves to California," he said. "The fact is, we are actually doing better than California because we have the Electric Highway."

He's talking about the West Coast Electric Highway, a fast-growing network of charging stations along Interstate 5 and smaller roadways. A few years back, the governors of Oregon, California and Washington signed an agreement to turn I-5 into an electric highway (using federal stimulus dollars).

Since then, you've probably noticed green charging stations labeled West Coast Electric Highway popping up all over the place, like the one in the picture to the left that was installed in the lake town of Detroit, Ore.

On a side note, the I-5 stretch is not the first electric highway corridor in the country. That honor goes to Tennessee, where Cracker Barrel Old Country Store restaurants installed a network of charging stations along interstates connecting Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga - a total of 425 miles.