Tesla has attracted plenty of attention for the Model S, dubbed by some in the know as the best car of the year and maybe one of the best cars ever. But here’s an idea worth considering: the company is quietly building up a product that could end up being much more important to the future of the auto industry than its high-priced luxury sedan. That product is the network of so-called Supercharger rapid-charging stations, which the company says take just 20 minutes to fill a battery with enough power to drive for 200 miles (other charging systems can take hours to do the same). While others are rolling out public infrastructure for electric vehicle charging, there is no single standard for fast charging that all electric cars can plug into, and Tesla’s Supercharger system is the fastest public charge available. If Tesla can roll out a proprietary fast-charging network before anybody else, it could be a big deal for the company — big like Henry Ford following up the Model T with a national network of gas stations he also controlled access to. As an entrepreneur familiar with the Internet, Tesla founder Elon Musk understands network effects, and the prospect that Supercharger could become the platform for fast, long-haul electric car charging must be on his mind as the company doubles down on the network of stations. There are competing fast-charging standards compatible with other cars, including CHAdeMO, originating in Japan and compatible with Nissan and Mitsubishi vehicles, among others. About 160 fast charging stations using the standard are already available around America, with almost 1,700 in Japan. A rival standard is being backed by some U.S. and European carmakers. But the Tesla Model S doesn’t work with either system, although there has been some talk it will be able to in the future. Utility companies, local governments and upstart charging businesses are all making moves to roll out charging stations of their own. Tesla currently has only 8 Supercharger stations, and said this week it will triple that number by the end of June and have 100 operating within a year. By then, the company said, “the Tesla Supercharger network will stretch across the continent, covering almost the entire population of the US and Canada. The expansion of the network will mean that Model S drivers can take the ultimate road trip — whether that’s LA to New York, Vancouver to San Diego, or Montreal to Miami – without spending a cent on fuel.” Who else is rolling out the same kind of rapid-charging network? So far, there’s nobody doing things on this kind of scale. Part of that is about focus: while electric cars are the be-all and end-all for Tesla, for other interested parties like utility operators, gas stations, big carmakers and local governments, getting such systems rolled out might be an interesting little idea, but it’s nobody’s existential challenge. Right now, only Tesla Model S owners can plug in to the Supercharger stations, but it’s not hard to imagine the company could do deals that give other cars access. Tesla, remember, is already selling battery and powertrain technology to others like Mercedes and Toyota — it’s not hard to see access to the Supercharger network also being a service on offer, for the right price. Within a year, that might become a deal worth doing for other car makers, keen to sell an all-electric sedan but worried about the state of fast-charging options for drivers looking at long-haul trips. It makes little sense for Toyota or Mercedes to roll out their own fast-charge networks, and by then, Tesla plans to have a sparking new network running across the country. Does anybody else plan to be in the same league? If not, the Tesla Model S might end up in the long run as the introduction to a company of much wider significance: not just a carmaker, but the default gas station operator of the electric vehicle era. And that’s a pretty nice thing to be, because when you look at the petrol era, it has proven much more profitable to be Chevron than it is to be GM.