Range Confidence: Charge Fast, Drive Far, with your Electric Car

By David Herron

Electric Car Charging standards, unity, disunity, and the need for unity

An advantage gasoline car drivers enjoy is that gasoline nozzles are the same at every gas station. The only variation in nozzle shape is for functional purposes – you don’t want to put diesel fuel in a gasoline vehicle, and vice versa. Therefore gasoline and diesel nozzle shapes are incompatible. Unfortunately the same sort of compatibility does not exist for electric cars.

A similar problem exists for portable electronics gizmos. Each manufacturer has chosen differently shaped charging ports, making it impossible to mix-and-match chargers. If you lose your electric razor charging cord you might have to throw out the old razor and buy a new one because of the difficulty to replace the cord. Whereas a common standard for electronic gizmo charging cords would mean a market could spring up for 3rd party charging cords and so on. That’s happened in part with the adoption of USB as a charging cord, and some locales even require a USB3 variant as the standardized charging cord.

In an electric car we want the freedom to drive up to any electric car charging station and plug in. There shouldn’t be any required adapter cords, no worries about incompatible charging plugs. The phrase “plug-and-play” is the operative word.

This hasn’t always been the case for electric cars. The previous phase of electric cars – late 1990’s to early 2000’s – saw two competing electric car charging standards. One used a claw shaped ungainly charging plug whose signaling system formed the basis of the J1772 charging standard. The other used a flat paddle which charged via an inductive connection.

It meant that at every charging station installation half the stations used the claw connector and the other half used the paddle connector. Which meant the macro-economic budget for charging stations was needlessly split between claw and paddle charging.

There’s a phrase — “All the wood behind one arrow” — which means focusing all resources on one goal. Having multiple charging standards is the opposite, splitting the resources among competing goals. Instead of resources being focused on one goal — building out a cohesive charging station network that everyone can use equally — they’re split into parallel efforts where the car makers fight each other over the best charging standard and the customer loses out.

Since that earlier electric car phase a common charging standard was developed for level 2 charging – J1772. The typical station runs at a 6 kiloWatts charging rate, and there are charging stations available from many vendors. They all have the same charging plug, and all the electric cars have the same charging socket.

It means we can go to any level 2 charging station and charge. That’s the power of unity, and is very convenient. Well, except for one thing, and that’s the requirement in most cases to have a membership card with the charging network operator. While we have a common charging plug, that puts all the wood behind one arrow, there’s still some disunity because one has to acquire and carry around cards from every charging network operator.

Unfortunately the DC Fast Charging market doesn’t enjoy the same sort of unity.

Instead of one fast charging standard, there are four. While Tesla Motors is doing a great thing building a ubiquitous fast charging network allowing Tesla Model S owners to take real electrically powered road trips, it only helps Model S owners. At the macro-economic level, it’s a misallocation of resources for the Supercharger network to only support Tesla’s automobiles – Tesla could be earning revenue from owners of other car brands if only the Supercharger network was open.

What’s needed is to get past this phase of incompatible fast charging standards. What’s needed is that the resources put into fast charging build a cohesive network that supports us all rather than a byzantine matrix of competing fast charging infrastructure.

After several years of fighting between automakers there are signs of rapproachment with automakers in the CHAdeMO and ComboCharging System camps installing fast charging stations supporting both protocols. While a dual-protocol fast charging station is more expensive, it’s less expensive than installing two complete fast charging stations. Dual protocol charging stations mean the automakers can have their silly argument over charging standards, and we the electric car consumers are less inconvenienced.

That leaves Tesla Motors as the odd-man-out sticking with their incompatible fast charging standard.

Electric Car Charging standards, unity, disunity, and the need for unity

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