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Charger standards fight confuses electric vehicle buyers, puts car company investments at risk

The second of a two-part series on all-electric cars. To read the first part, click here.

An emerging clash between electric vehicle quick-chargers is the auto industry’s rerun of the VHS versus Betamax videotape battle.

For the electric vehicle owner, there is the Japanese-developed CHAdeMO standard. Then there is the Society of Automotive Engineers’ (SAE) International J1772 Combo standard. Both are direct-current quick-charging systems designed to charge the battery of an electric vehicle to 80 percent in about 20 minutes.
Blink fast charger

“Filling her up” with juice. Photo courtesy of the Blink Network.

But, like the videotapes, these two systems are designed to be completely incompatible.

DC fast charging is widely seen as a pivotal way to reduce the range anxiety associated with battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and to expand consumer acceptance of zero-emissions cars. The standards war puts potentially billions of dollars in investments at stake and could shape the electric vehicle market for decades to come.

As of July 1, there were 283 publicly available CHAdeMO chargers installed in the United States, according to the software and services company Recargo. Japanese automakers Nissan Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors both offer vehicles in the United States today that use the CHAdeMO system — the Leaf and the i-Miev, respectively. Toyota Motor Co. also supports the CHAdeMO standard but has yet to launch a vehicle with quick-charge capability.

Backers of the SAE Combo standard include auto industry heavyweights General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Volkswagen Group and BMW AG. However, Combo chargers are not yet commercially available, and the first Combo-compatible car, the Chevrolet Spark, only just went on sale.

Tension between the two camps is palpable. At a California hearing last year Shad Balch, GM’s manager of environment and energy policy, called for the boycott of CHAdeMO chargers. CHAdeMO supporters, in turn, have called the SAE Combo charger “the plug without cars.” Meanwhile, experts warn the feud could kill the momentum of the electric vehicle market.

“Fast charging, however and whenever it gets built out, is going to be key for the development of a mainstream market for plug-in electric vehicles,” said Richard Martin, editorial director at Navigant Research. “The broader conflict between the CHAdeMO and SAE Combo connectors, we see that as a hindrance to the market over the next several years that needs to be worked out.”
A plot against Nissan?

The Nissan Leaf was the first next-generation BEV to go on sale in 2010. While more and more automakers are starting to offer all-electric vehicles, Nissan remains the only automaker committed to producing a mass-market zero-emission vehicle in all 50 states (ClimateWire, July 23). With 27,000 Leafs on the road and hundreds of chargers already in the ground, “right now, the de facto standard is CHAdeMO,” said Brendan Jones, director of electric vehicle infrastructure strategy at Nissan North America.

Working with developer AeroVironment Inc., Nissan plans to install at least 600 CHAdeMO quick chargers by March next year. Tesla Motors also plans to roll out hundreds of fast chargers, but they will be exclusively available to the pool of Model S owners.

With Nissan leading the BEV mass market and next to no Combo-compatible cars on the road, some have suggested that efforts to boycott CHAdeMO are part of a ploy to slow Nissan down.

“It makes commercial sense, if you’re a late entry into the market, to try and slow the development of the market by stopping the market leader from gaining greater market share,” said Llewelyn Hughes, an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University who focuses on energy issues.

The rival charging standards are likely going to play out in the vehicle marketplace in terms of which company can offer the best car for the best price with the best charging system, he said.

“So there’s going to be that typical battle between automakers around these particular model types [of battery electric vehicles],” Hughes added. “Then there will be the non-market battle, as well, where you try and get governments and cities to sign up with your particular standard.”
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