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EV Plug Wars: Charging Ahead When What We Really Need Is More Cars

Electric-vehicle charging is just one giant pissing contest these days, with different companies crossing streams in a quest to prove connector, standard, or network superiority. The latest involves Tesla Motors’¹ newly unveiled “Supercharger.”

Is that a connector in your pocket, Elon?

Each faction obviously believes its technology is better, but that one might be right is not the point.

Chelsea Sexton

Chelsea Sexton’s work on General Motors’ EV1 program was featured in the film, Who Killed the Electric Car?, and she was a Consulting Producer on the follow-up, Revenge of the Electric Car. Chelsea served as Director of the Automotive X PRIZE, Senior Adviser to VantagePoint Capital Partners’ Cleantech practice, and co-founder of Plug In America, an electric drive advocacy group. She currently runs the Lightning Rod Foundation, educating consumers and advising industry policymakers.

Electricity’s ubiquity makes it an ideal vehicle fuel. But some infrastructure is required to accomplish “the last mile” from the grid to the car — especially in public locations. The industry learned the hard way during the 1990s that having two charging standards (inductive and conductive) and a handful of different connectors chosen by various automakers not only frustrated electric vehicle (EV) drivers, but added cost and complexity to creating this infrastructure in the first place.

The industry decried ever going down that road again … before going down that road again. This time: by collectively introducing a handful of competing connectors.

Tesla has played this game before. Broadly speaking, there are two EV charging levels for residential use. A 120v household outlet (like the ones we use for smartphones) will deliver roughly four miles for every hour of charging, requiring no additional equipment other than the cord that comes with every vehicle. Many EV and plug-in hybrid drivers successfully use this method to charge their vehicles while they sleep. Those who need to charge faster can use a 240v outlet (typically used for appliances like dryers) and regain 12-25 miles or more per hour, depending on the car. The same type of 240v chargers are meant to be installed in public locations like shopping malls to allow EVs to “graze” as drivers go about their days, or to facilitate a trip just beyond the typical range. For these charging stations, the industry adopted a “J-plug” for all plug-in vehicles – the J1772 industry standard, set by the SAE a couple of years ago after learning from the confusion of the 1990s.

But in a Jobsian triumph of form over function, Tesla designed its own 240v charging system because CEO Elon Musk thought the J-plug was “ugly.” While the resulting High Power Wall Connector is indeed elegant, it is also still awaiting UL certification by the Underwriters Laboratory. So shipments to new Model S owners have been delayed, forcing them to use a workaround in the meantime. To make matters worse, Model S drivers, like Roadster owners, will need a special adapter if they wish to top off at a 240v charging station while out and about. The chargers for these Tesla vehicle models are also incompatible with each other, so owners of both must install a different one for each. Think about what’s happened with the growing number of connectors for mobile devices: micro USB, mini USB, MagSafe, proprietary 30-pin dock connector, Lightning. How do you like them Apples?
But in a Jobsian triumph of form over function, Tesla designed its own 240v charging system because CEO Elon Musk thought the J-plug was “ugly.”

The issues around “fast charging” are even murkier. Fast chargers are able to deliver up to 150 miles of driving range in roughly 30 minutes. Because EVs are perfectly suited for daily commuting and most are used that way, public charging is already more of a perk than a necessity at any speed. But in an attempt to assuage over-hyped “range anxiety,” companies have promoted the idea of prolific, fast-charging networks. They’ve convinced the public that current EVs (most with a typical range of 75-100 miles) are as good as gas cars for road trips (they’re not). But buyers have come to expect fast-charging networks, falsely convinced that EVs depend on this expensive infrastructure. Assuming that EVs aren’t useful for anything if they can’t do everything is akin to deciding a microwave oven is useless because it’s not the best way to cook a Thanksgiving turkey.


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