German firms lead charge to plug customers into e-car network
German carmakers hope a network of high-power charging stations they are rolling out with Ford will set an industry standard for plugs and protocols that will give them an edge over electric car rivals.
At the moment, Tesla and carmakers in Japan and Germany use different plugs and communication protocols to link batteries to chargers, but firms building the charging networks needed for electric vehicles to become mainstream say the number of plug formats will need to be limited to keep costs down.
Carmakers behind the winning technology will benefit from having an established supply chain and an extensive network, making their vehicles potentially more attractive to customers, analysts say.
Manufacturers that back losing plugs, however, could end up with redundant R&D and may have to invest to adapt assembly lines and vehicle designs so their customers can use the most widespread fast-charging networks.
UBS has estimated that $360bn (€291bn) will need to be spent over the next eight years to build global charging infrastructure to keep pace with electric car sales, and it will be key to limit the numerous technologies now in use.
"The quick-charging marketplace might be growing fast but the issue of different types of connectivity and communication will need to be resolved going forward," UBS said.
To try to build critical mass for the Combined Charging System (CCS) favoured by Europe, BMW, Daimler, Ford and the Volkswagen group said in November they would develop 400 high-power charging stations on main roads in 18 European countries by 2020.
"In the end, it is about safeguarding investments for those that are investing in electric mobility," said Claas Bracklo, head of electromobility at BMW and the chairman of the Charging Interface Initiative (CharIN), which is backing CCS.
It is still early days and difficult to predict which plug technology will prevail or even whether there will always be different ways to charge vehicles. But there is a lot at stake for the carmakers ploughing billions into the development of batteries and electric cars.
Besides CCS, there are three other standards that will charge batteries fast; Tesla's Supercharger system, CHAdeMO, developed by Japanese firms including Nissan and Mitsubishi, and GB/T in China, the world's biggest electric car market.
"I think over time CHAdeMO and CCS converge, likely into the current CCS standard, and the jury is out as to what will happen to Tesla," said Pasquale Romano, CEO of ChargePoint, which runs one of the world's largest charging station networks.
So far, there are about 7,000 CCS charging points worldwide, according to CharIN, with more than half in Europe.
The EU backs CCS as the standard for fast-charging but does not prohibit other plugs being installed. That compares with 16,639 charge points compatible with CHAdeMO - most in Japan and Europe - and 8,496 Tesla Superchargers, with the majority in the US. In China, there are 127,434 GB/T charging stations, according to the China Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure Promotion Alliance.
For traditional carmakers, getting ahead in the electric car race is also about staying relevant in an industry that has been shaken up by Tesla. (Reuters)