Humans are interesting creatures! Whenever we develop a new technology we have to make it proprietary and unique to only our buyers. We have seen this in consumer electronics and mobile telephony for decades. This of course meant that every time you bought a new product, you had to buy a new power cable or battery pack or charger unit and waste the old one.
We have seen a gradual change with laptops and mobile phones where the devices are now standardising on a smaller range of sockets – and for mobile devices, the USB or mini USB is becoming the unofficial industry standard. Slowly but surely the manufacturers of these devices have realised the wastage of materials and the ease by which a new consumer can use their product if they can re-use old charging units and in some cases batteries. That means it is easier to transition between devices – a good and bad result for the manufacturer however it is their responsibility to keep new consumers happy so they don’t leave for a competitor.
So we come to a “new” technology: electric cars. I say new because it is the fourth generation of electric cars that is the subject of this article. The first being in the early days of the automobile, the second was probably in the 50s when manufacturers were looking for a cheap alternative to take advantage of the growing post war wealth of Europe and the US, the third would have been when the GM EV1 and alternatives were sold in the late 90s and now the fourth with Tesla, Nissan, BMW and others now shipping the latest and greatest versions.
So the developers have learned little from the consumer electronics industry (despite being headline acts at this years Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas during January). Why? Because they are shipping cars with one of three proprietary power plugs! Here’s the problem: the plugs and charging equipment use different power ratings and plug designs. Crazily they are all loosely based on the international IEC 62196 standard but differ slightly – enough to make it a problem when you arrive at a site that supports one or two of the opposing systems!
The first type is the SAE J1772 format that is used by Tesla, Nissan and the Big 3 (GM, Ford & Chrysler). Confusingly, Nissan puts a different type into the Leaf being based on the CHAdeMO standard (similar but not exact). Mitsubishi also use this style. Type 2 is a European style that uses a different plug and power rating – remember the US and Europe still use different voltages. Type 3 is the EV Plug Alliance Connector, again different and available on Formula E racers for example.
With the desire to gain a foothold in this market and make the cars more usable outside an urban environment and to encourage buyers who travel more than 50 miles to commute to a workplace, it is necessary to have charging stations, most of which are proprietary to one of the plug styles.
Along comes a company called ChargePoint. They already have 20,000 charging points in the US however they have been talking to some of the European manufacturers about making their charging points multi-dimensional, i.e. they can support any type of charging plug at differing voltages. I know that sounds like common sense however it is only now happening, albeit quicker than the consumer electronics industry. This means that you can turn up in any modern electric vehicle and get re-charged without worrying about whether your vehicle fits the spec.
The next step is to take the over-arching IEC 62196 standard and make a “combo” plug that everyone can use. Many of the European manufacturers, GM and Ford have agreed to follow this path, with the CHAdeMO alliance also agreeing to make changes that support the new format. This leaves Tesla with their proprietary charging system (based on SAE J1772) out of the loop, however you can buy an optional connector to the newer format if you are a Tesla customer.
We will never see a common electric output between the US, Europe and Asia, however we will see a common method of plugging in cars that means that every manufacturer can save developments costs and keep the price of their vehicles competitive. The only other issue that we will face is the probability of higher taxes on electric cars as tax revenues from fuel goes down – thats a topic for another post!