Plug slugfest has vast EV implications
Automakers are split: It's a VHS vs. Betamax battle
KAWASAKI, Japan -- When pulling into a filling station, drivers today don't worry whether the pump nozzle will fit their car.
But in a future in which electric plugs are in play, drivers of battery-powered cars could be in for a shock.
Thanks to splintering fast-charging technologies, drivers of future electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids could be left high and dry if they coast into the wrong recharging station on their battery's last remaining juice.
The problem is the emergence of two incompatible technologies for the all-important fast chargers. Those lifelines are seen as the gasoline stations of tomorrow -- the critical infrastructure necessary for the widespread adoption of electric cars. Cost is still a big hurdle for electric cars, but so is range anxiety -- the fear that your electric car will leave you stranded between charging stations.
And global automakers are divided into two rival camps about the best way to top off batteries with lightning speed.
In one corner are the Japanese, backing a system called CHAdeMO.
In the other: the Americans and Germans, pitching a standard called the Combined Charging System, or Combo. CHAdeMO EVs won't be able to use Combo, and vice versa.
The disparity matters because it could be another roadblock to the introduction of electric vehicles, increasing consumer resistance. A scattering of incompatible charging stations compounds range anxiety with plug anxiety.
There is also the risk of one technology eventually becoming dominant, making the other -- along with its expensive battery-powered cars -- obsolete. Potential EV buyers may be tempted to sit on the sidelines until a clear winner emerges.
The brewing plug war is reminiscent of another famous standards showdown -- the 1980s videotape format battle between Betamax and VHS. Will one of the EV charging protocols go the way of Betamax, or is there room for both?
"It's a fight between carmakers," says Hiroyuki Aoki, association secretary for CHAdeMO and a senior manager for mobility technology at Tokyo Electric Power Co. The latter is Japan's biggest utility and a charter member of the CHAdeMO association.
"They want to advocate their own advantage over the others."
Both CHAdeMO and Combo tackle the task of fast charging through a direct current.
It is different from the Level 1, 110 volts, and Level 2, 220 volts, which operate with alternating current.
Automakers want DC direct charging to take less than 10 minutes, or not much longer than it takes to fill a tank with gasoline.
The idea is to accommodate currents as high as 500 volts distributed from public charging stations.
The Combo and CHAdeMO connectors are different. So are their so-called protocols, or the language through which the electrical systems of the car and charger communicate. That means you can't just use a plug adapter to switch from one system to another.
Head start vs. upstart
CHAdeMO has some advantages. For starters, it has been in use since 2010.
Today it is used in such EVs as the Nissan Leaf, the Mitsubishi i, the Japan-spec all-electric Honda Fit and the Toyota eQ, an EV based on the iQ minicar.
More than 1,500 CHAdeMO fast chargers are in use worldwide, including 100 in the United States and 200 in Europe. About 1,300 are sprinkled around Japan. And more than 30 companies manufacture CHAdeMO fast-chargers.
The charging points have dispensers resembling gasoline pumps with hefty electric cords that plug into the vehicles. CHAdeMO's deliver 50 kilowatts of direct current at 150 to 200 amps. This charges in a matter of minutes, as opposed to several hours when done through an alternating current outlet.
CHAdeMO gets its name from "charge de move" or "charge for moving." It is also a pun on "o cha demo," the Japanese phrase for grabbing a cup of tea, as drivers might do while waiting for their EVs to charge.
CHAdeMO is backed by all of Japan's big automakers. But the steering members are Nissan Motor Co., Mitsubishi Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and Fuji Heavy Industries, the maker of Subaru cars.
PSA Peugeot Citroen is the only foreign participant, thanks largely to its EV alliance with Mitsubishi.
"Right now CHAdeMO is the only method in practical use," says CHAdeMO Executive Secretary Eiji Tada, a senior engineer at Nissan's EV program.
"We have no intention of losing," he says of the competition with Combo. "Combo must still be proved in real life trials. They will need time to kill any bugs in the system."
Indeed, Combo is a plug without a car. The system was first demonstrated in May. The first chargers are expected to be deployed by year end, with the first Combo-compatible vehicles reaching market in 2013.
Combo also has powerful backers: A U.S.- German consortium including Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Porsche and Volkswagen. Both the SAE in the United States and ACEA, the European association of vehicle manufacturers, have chosen Combo as their fast-charging method.
Combo's biggest advantage is that -- just as its name suggests -- it combines DC fast charging with a plug for the slower AC charging that EV drivers often do at home overnight.
A CHAdeMO car needs two connecting ports: one for the DC plug, another for the AC input. But a Combo car combines both functions into one connector, saving cost and hassle.
Backers of both technologies are digging in.
"There is an immense war of words between OEMs backing the new SAE standard and Japanese OEMs who are already implementing the CHAdeMO chargers," says Lee Stogner, chairman of transportation electrification and a former director at the influential Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
The IEEE sets global electrical standards and is working with the SAE to develop the inner electronics of the Combo system.
Band-Aid solutions might include public high-speed chargers with plugs for both Combo and CHAdeMO cars. But that would jack up the cost of rolling out the charging infrastructure, anathema to EV patrons already discouraged by their slow introduction.
Confusion is exacerbated by the existence of third-party fast-charging systems that have sprung up between the cracks of the two global blocs. China, for example, has its own standard.
Meanwhile, Hyundai Motor Group is developing its EVs on a standard unique to Korea. But the company says it will support the standard of any target market when the cars are exported.
And electric car pioneer Tesla Motors Inc. uses a proprietary fast-charging system incompatible with CHAdeMO and Combo.
Tesla says it is considering an adapter for the new Model S sedan that would accommodate CHAdeMO. But that is still under study.
Room for reconciliation?
Long-term, something has to give. CHAdeMO looks to what insiders call a next-generation charger. It will ideally reconcile the differences between Combo and CHAdeMO and emerge as a true global standard.
Today's EVs are expected to have a lifetime of seven to 10 years. That means next-generation charging technology would arrive around 2020 at the earliest, Tada predicts.
Combo backers are less accommodating. They see their technology as more advanced and as wielding bigger scale thanks to a larger stable of automakers.
Combo users also don't have to pay licensing fees. CHAdeMO requires its users to pay annual "dues" to use the technology.
"Reconciliation is highly improbable," says Stogner of the IEEE. Survival likely will depend on the pace of new product intros.
"In a few years, the electric cars implementing the SAE standard will greatly outnumber the ones implementing CHAdeMO," Stogner predicts. "The popularity of CHAdeMO fast-charging technology will continuously decrease until Nissan and other OEMs in the association are forced to adopt the SAE standard."
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