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A big benefit for Tesla owners is going away

A charger is connected to a Tesla Motors Inc. Model X vehicle displayed at the Cutting-Edge IT & Electronics Comprehensive Exhibition (CEATEC at Makuhari Messe in Chiba, Japan, on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. The show runs through Oct. 7. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg)

Thinking about buying a new Tesla? You may want to consider this change to the company's policies that could affect how you charge your car's battery.

Although Tesla's longtime approach has been to let drivers use its exclusive network of 3,500-plus superchargers for free, that benefit is going away for future customers. Beginning Jan. 1, anyone who orders a new Tesla will be expected to pay a "small fee" at superchargers once they've exhausted a yearly package of complimentary charging credits that's good for about 1,000 miles of range. It isn't clear how much the charging fees will be; Tesla said the prices will likely fluctuate based on regional demand for electricity. But they will be comparable to filling a tank with gas, the company said.

Customers can still avoid the supercharger fees after using up those free miles by hooking up their vehicles at home. That could help commuters who don't need to travel far. But it's clear the credits are not meant to cover all your driving needs: The average U.S. driver travels up to 13,500 miles in a year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Tesla customers who put down $1,000 earlier this year to reserve a Model 3 will likely be affected by the new policy, Tesla told The Washington Post. Because the reservations do not constitute an actual order for a car, it does not appear that Model 3 customers will be grandfathered into the free supercharging program. (The company said it would have additional details on Model 3 charging "closer to launch.")

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Not only does Monday's decision mark a shift away from the company's previous policy, but it also signals that Tesla is maturing as a company, said Karl Brauer, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book.

"Tesla’s efforts to become a profitable, high-volume automaker will require a more conservative, long-term approach to managing its cost structure," said Brauer. "It wouldn’t surprise me if Tesla's other high-cost amenities, including loaner cars and vehicle pickup/drop-off for service, are similarly curtailed in the coming months."

It also hints at how Tesla intends to monetize its users. Tesla insisted Monday that the supercharger network will "never be a profit center." Still, collecting fees from supercharger users will help the company offset its costs, said Tasha Keeney, an industry analyst at ARK Investment Management. And by the early 2020s, she added, Teslas could be widespread enough that fully charging one might cost as little as $16 at a supercharger.

"You'd cover all your infrastructure costs and more if you were to charge those low rates," said Keeney.