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19 December 2019

Google Maps’ EV filter highlights just how fractured charging is

Google Maps has added a new filter to its search tool, in both its mobile and in-car applications, which allows users to filter by the type of plug they need for their particular type of EV. This illustrates just how far the fledgling market needs to go to provide a unified customer experience, and the endemic issue of automakers wanting to do their own thing at the expense of standardization.

Of course, internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles have solved this problem, with cars of all makes able to refuel at stations from all providers. This is not the case for EVs, and this is a problem that really needs to be nipped in the bud now, before incompatibility becomes a customer complaint that can be used to bludgeon the EVs themselves.

From the communications networks side of things, it seems unthinkable that there could already be six different types of charging interface. The likes of Cisco would pull its hair out if it had to support six different types of Ethernet jack, and would have a vested interest in forcing the industry to consolidate around its preferred option. That is how standards come about, after all.

But the more pointed analogy is that of household appliances, in a world where the homeowner would need to be able to support six different outlet types in order to plug in the range of electronics that they want. For the vendors, such an environment would encourage a consumer to pick one type and stick with it, locking out the other vendors from future purchasing decisions. It would be better for them if they supported a standard plug, which would then allow them to outcompete rivals on features, rather than on something as mundane as the power supply interface.

In EVs, there is a not insignificant chance that unless this problem is solved, market forces will create regional EV charging networks, which only support one or two plugs. Public networks will be built to address the most popular plug type, and the people will buy EVs to suit that interface, which then locks out other EVs from entering that market, which then creates a cycle. That’s not good for the EV providers collectively, unless you happen to be the winner – and immediately, you can see the angle that competition regulators would instigate their investigations on.

Broadly, the SAE J1772 (IEC Type 1, or J-plug) plug was the first design, and is most popular with American automakers. The IEC Type 2 evolution is preferred by European automakers. They have different pin configurations. Both Type 1 and Type 2 have been adapted to support Combined Charging System (CCS), which is the additional pins needed to provide DC-based fast charging.

These are essentially the same initial plug housing, but with the extra pins grafted to the bottom. As you will probably have inferred, CCS1 (a.k.a. Combo 1, and defined as IEC 61296-3, Configuration EE), is the Type 1 fast charging variant, with CCS2 (Combo 2, IEC 61296-3 Configuration FF) supporting Type 2.

So already we’re up to four different types of charging interface that are broadly split into two political camps. The next camp comes from the Japanese automakers, and is called CHAdeMO – most commonly found in the Nissan Leaf. CHAdeMO uses IEC 62196-3 too, but Configuration AA.

The CHAdeMO Association is trying to promote the interface as a global standard, but has made little headway. CHAdeMO is notable for its charging and communication specifications, IEC 61851-23 and IEC 61851-24 respectively, which convey its vehicle-to-grid ambitions. Notably, CHAdeMO is the only EV charging interface that has V2X (Vehicle-to-X) specifications, and Nissan’s involvement in a number of V2G pilot projects convey the relative advancement of this standard, compared to its rivals.

The CHAdeMO Association’s work with the China Electricity Council (CEC) could prove to be a kingmaker, using the ChaoJi moniker, as China is a huge market for all the global automakers, and if CHAdeMO is the primary option for that market, some product portfolio consolidation would be welcome.

In terms of allegiances, Tesla has its own plug, and of course, its own public charging networks – built as a means to assuage range anxiety concerns, as a forerunner. Tesla did, for a time, lead the EV market outright, and could perhaps have forced the market to consolidate around a single design. However, egos on both sides of the market would have made that a slim possibility.

So, CHAdeMO seems the most capable of the charging interfaces, but is so far somewhat confined. It features in Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota models, as well as Kia (South Korea), Hyundai (South Korea), LEVC (the new London taxi model, a subsidiary of China’s Geely), as well as a couple of Citroen and Peugeot models. Notably, it is also included as an adapter for some cars sold in Japan, due to the prevalence of the charging network infrastructure in the country, including the BMW i3, Tesla’s Model 3, Model S, and Model X.

With Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) as a founding member, CHAdeMO could become the standard needed for V2G to take off – and with it, a host of new smart grid applications. The ability to remotely control and automate charging cycles for the EVs is imperative, but requires some sort of integration between the energy provider and the car itself. Currently, this usually necessitates the charger itself being the middleman, whether that’s a large public charger or the small wall-mounted box used in most home deployments. In time, the standard could evolve sufficiently to bypass the middleman, but that is admittedly quite a lot of work.