Why Europe’s 400 ultra-fast chargers may be just the boost electric cars need

Setting Charging Standards Worked In America 100 Years Ago

Something big is happening in Europe. The three famous German carmakers — Daimler, BMW and VW Group — and Ford are together developing a continental network of 400 ultra-fast charging sites along important routes to make long-distance travel by electric cars practical.

Tesla already has a much larger network of ‘Superchargers’ across the US and Europe, but what the four carmakers are doing might prove more important for electric cars, eventually.

Topping up at Tesla’s 120-kW supercharging stations adds a 270-km range in 30 minutes, so the 350-kW Combined Charging System (CCS) developed by the four companies is expected to be much faster. But faster charging is not the only game-changer here.

The really important thing about the Combined Charging System is that it looks like a standard. Hundreds of thousands of cars from rival manufacturers are going to use the same charging ports. It is like the AA battery or the USB charger of electric cars.

Before USB charging, Nokia phone owners could not use a Sony charger, and Sony owners could not use a Motorola charger. Car charging stations require precious real estate, and when every manufacturer uses their own design, charging becomes expensive and cumbersome. What if your Tesla runs out of charge just outside a Ford station?

It’s a very real problem, as this August 2016 article in Scientific American shows:

“All electric vehicles can’t tap into all fast-chargers.

“The CHAdeMO network only fits Japanese and Asian-made vehicles. The SAE Combo plugs only fit German and American cars. Tesla’s Supercharger network only connects to the company’s vehicles.

“Of the 1,855 fast-charging stations in the United States, 1,077 have CHAdeMO connectors, 764 have SAE Combo connectors and 289 have Tesla connectors, according to the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center.”

Not the first time

The Combined Charging System will take three years to build, but it is not the first time such a plan has been thought of in Europe. Back in 1899, when electric cars first caught the public’s attention, a similar idea was floated, and it seemed more ambitious in that era. A British journal reported:

A company has been formed in Belgium to inaugurate and maintain electric-power charging stations and motor-car repair shops on all the principal high-roads of Europe. It is asserted that at such stations there will be a bar, a restaurant, a repair shop, and charging conveniences both for cars actuated by electricity and petroleum spirit. The scheme is, we fear, too grandiose, however, for fulfilment. There will shortly exist a need for such stations both on the Continent and in the British Isles, however, and the ‘motor posting stations’ should prove remunerative if run on commercial lines.

Success in America

A decade later, efforts to standardise charging equipment proved successful in America as sales of electric cars took off. Standards were set by the Electric Vehicle Association of America — a body of 380 members, including carmakers, battery manufacturers and power generation companies. This is what the association had to say about its work in 1913:

The territory in which the electric cars can operate has been enormously enlarged by increase of charging facilities.

The increase happened, partly, because the same equipment could be used by all new electric cars.

In order that the same charging equipment can be used for all makes of cars the charging plug must be uniform in all cars. The association undertook a campaign to secure this uniformity and has just succeeded in bringing its efforts to a satisfactory conclusion.

The association was formed in September 1910, and car sales started increasing rapidly soon after.

In New York, between July 1, 1911, and July 1, 1912, the number of such cars in use grew 45%, while an authority on electrical affairs here in Chicago estimates that this method of trucking has increased 400% during the last two years.

The Combined Charging System might brew another such revolution.

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