Dear Dot: Why Aren’t Electric Vehicle Chargers Universal?

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Dear Dot,

I read in Bluedot Living (Cruising with Currier, Spring 2022) that Tesla plans to open its charging stations to electric vehicles that aren’t Teslas. I drive a Volvo plug-in hybrid and have discovered on my trips to the Vineyard that the Tesla chargers don’t fit my vehicle. Are there plans to create a universal charging plug for all electric vehicles? Which companies’ charging plugs are proprietary? And how quickly is EV-charging infrastructure being built?
–Daniel, Vineyard Haven

It’s a common refrain: “I’d love to buy an electric vehicle but …” Much of what we do in our Cruising with Currier column is try to move past the “but …” to demystify electric vehicles because, as your letter indicates, confusion and frustration persist. 

In the case of me hoping to buy a fully electric Dot-mobile, I want to be sure that EV infrastructure is robust enough that I never have to worry about running out of battery charge en route to the Vineyard (we call this range anxiety) and also that, as soon as I buy a vehicle, another isn’t released at the same price point but with greater range. And so I wait. But researching the answer to your question just might be the push I need to finally buy a full EV.

I took your question to Samantha Houston, a senior analyst with the Clean Transportation Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Samantha loves questions like yours because they give her a chance to do what she does best: Make the case for electric vehicles and the infrastructure that will support their wide implementation.

“My job,” Houston says, “is making sure that’s not happening for folks like the person who wrote to you.”

We all know we need to get to a highly, if not fully, electrified transportation future as soon as we can, she says. 

While Houston has plenty to say about home chargers (we’ll save that for another question), your question, Daniel, is about being on the road and knowing that you can find an EV charger that will fit your car. Why is that even an issue?

Houston points to VHS and Betamax. When technology is new, there are always competing versions but, says Houston, “typically one pathway will win out.” In the case of electric vehicles, that pathway in North America at least is CCS (which stands for Combined Charging System). CHAdeMO (Charge de Move, the name of the consortium that created it) is another common charger, favored by Japanese EVs. Tesla has its own proprietary network of charging stations (which is the issue you were running into, Daniel) but has moved to make its cars compatible with CCS standards. And Electrify America, which has opened an average of four stations every week since 2018, mostly along interstate highways, is focused on CCS technology. “The good news is that the market is converging on that CCS standard,” says Houston. Readers with Mitsubishis and Nissans, who were behind the CHAdeMO chargers, have said that, in North America at least, they’re moving to CCS. And Tesla drivers can get an adapter so that they can also hook up to CCS chargers. For non-Tesla drivers wondering about whether they can use a Tesla charger, the answer in North America is not yet, though Tesla in Europe has opened some of its chargers to other vehicles.

What does that mean for you in your Volvo chugging to the Vineyard? Volvo threw its weight behind CCS technology in 2016 so it’s safe to say that a compatible charging station is either already or coming along your travel route. Check out PlugShare to identity charging locations. Zoom in on your specific location to get the info. The app will also tell you the power level (there are three, from a slow drip of electricity to rapid charge in minutes), the port type, and the cost. 

Chargingly,
Dot

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