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USA: Coming soon to a mall near you: 20-minute electric car charging

In all the hoopla over an Obama-supported EV battery company going bankrupt, it’s OK if you missed the announcement that electric cars will soon benefit from made-in-America fast charging. Is four hours too long for a charge? Well, how does 20 to 30 minutes grab you?

Electric cars aren’t exactly zooming out of the showrooms, and a key to having them succeed is making them painless for consumers. That means cheaper prices, longer range, and a charging experience equivalent to getting gas from the SaveMart. That moment is coming closer. The obvious solution—fast chargers next to the gas pumps—is now more likely.

The breakthrough is that the SAE International standards agency has finalized work on a U.S. 480-volt fast-charging standard. Until now, we’ve been dependent on the Japanese CHAdeMO standard, which is what you’ll find in the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi I-MiEV. CHAdeMO uses a totally different plug than the American 240-volt J1772, so that meant two different outlets on the car. The new U.S. standard combines 240- and 480-volt charging into a single “combo” plug to make things easier.

The good news is that Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Porsche and Volkswagen are all supporting the combo plug, so that bodes well for the future of U.S.-Europe compatibility. China has its own fast-charging standard, though, and Japan will likely stay with CHAdeMO. A full charge with any of these units will probably take 30 minutes or more, but a jump from 20 to 80 percent capacity (which is what you’re actually going to need in the real world) will take only 20.

American automakers, who sit on the SAE advisory panel, say they like a combo plug better than CHAdeMO because it will allow a single charge port hidden behind what used to be the gasoline filler. OK, but the days of electrics that are converted gas cars is probably coming to an end. To really succeed, EVs need to be just that from the start. The Tesla Model S, an electric all the way, shows the advantage of this—it has the batteries mounted cleanly underneath, and trunk space both front and rear. The charge port is neatly incorporated under the left taillight lens (above).

Tesla, by the way, has opted out of the whole standards debate by creating its own network of incompatible Superchargers. CEO Elon Musk introduced me to Tesla’s charging system, and he couldn’t hide his contempt for the admittedly ugly combo plug. The Superchargers use an elegant and relatively tiny plug (the phasers on Star Trek come to mind) but the network is not currently set up to charge anything but the Tesla Model S.


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