So, is this what surrender looks like? Ford and General Motors just signed agreements to use Tesla’s Supercharger stations. Ditto Rivian. Stellantis and Hyundai are looking at similar deals. And, most recently, Tesla teased that Toyota should join the party. Let’s see, that would make Detroit’s Big Three — okay, Detroit’s Big Two-and-a-Half, since Stellantis is mostly European-owned these days — as well as the world’s largest automaker and the fast-charging (pun intended) South Koreans all using, or thinking about using, Tesla Supercharger stations.
Oh, sure, if you ask them, they are not waving any white flags, with all claiming they are but expanding their charging networks. But understand this: no matter how rosily the automakers and the charging industry dress these deals up — better customer service, faster charging, more ports — this looks like the French Army on war manoeuvres. The battle for fast-charging has always been one of the combined might of the American government, the world’s biggest automakers, and the charging industry all against the Silicon Valley pipsqueak—
And the pipsqueak just won
There are two charging protocols available in America, Tesla’s North American Charging Standard (NACS), which is specific to the brand; and the Combined Charging Standard (CCS), which is supposed to be the universal standard supported by all other manufacturers and, not hardly unimportant, the American government. Besides the technical differences — charging speeds, information gathering, and, most importantly, the configuration of the actual connector — there is Tesla which is, again, the only automaker using the NACS charger; and then the rest of the industry, which uses CCS stations, most notably Chargepoint, Electrify America (Electrify Canada, in our fair land), and others.
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Before we can continue, we need to clarify a few definitions. First off, many people — indeed, much of the media when reporting on North America’s burgeoning recharging infrastructure — conflate “charging stations” with “charging points.” The first refers to the facility, the second to the actual charger. Think of the former as your local Esso station; while the latter is its 16 gas pumps.
The only problem with that analogy is that there are three different types of pumps: Level 1, Level 2, and DC fast-chargers. Level 1 chargers use standard residential 120-volt wiring, and can take literally days to recharge a large car battery. Level 2 works on 240 volts — and, if installed in your home, requires an upgrade to your wiring — and will charge a BEV in 10 hours or so. DC fast-charging, on the other hand, is used exclusively for public chargers. Ranging from 50 to 350 kilowatts — and hoping to soon stretch to 500 kW — they are supposed to be able to recharge a battery in anywhere from a couple of hours to 20 to 30 minutes (say an hour, or longer, for one of GMC’s King-Kong Hummer EVs).
Why is this happening?
Those latter types — DC fast-chargers — is what all the fuss is about. Although competing networks — notably Chargepoint — can claim more chargers, they are mostly slower-speed Level 2s. Tesla, on the other hand, is the king of DC fast-charging. In fact, there are more Tesla Superchargers in America than all other DC fast-chargers combined. As of November 23, 2022, says USAfacts.org, Tesla had 15,683 V2 and V3 fast-chargers in the United States, while there were but a total of 11,474 for all the other charging networks combined. Yes, 57.7 per cent of all DC fast-chargers in the US are only available to Tesla owners.
Now, one can try to excuse the competition by noting that Tesla has been at this charging infrastructure game longer than anyone else — CEO Elon Musk correctly determining long ago that recharging would be the paradigm-shifter — but, according to a report in Automotive News, Tesla is still kicking butt, the industry bible quoting EVAdoption as saying Tesla is currently opening about 378 new fast-charging ports per month compared to the 273 all the remaining charging operators are unveiling combined.
Making matters worse
Not only are Tesla DC fast-charging points more plentiful, they are also more reliable. Although quantifiable studies are rare, anecdotally, CCS charging points are notoriously often out of order, with roughly one-quarter to one-third of fast-charging stations not functional at any given time. The issue is especially prevalent in the winter months here in Canada, where harsh conditions and poor maintenance often wreak havoc on charging station availability. Some experts credit better build quality as Tesla’s prime advantage.
Others cite the Supercharger networks’ excellent connectivity, which is used to alert repair crews when maintenance is required. Whatever the company’s advantage, understand this: Elon Musk may be half a head-case, and the interiors of his cars age faster than L.A. socialites baking in the noonday sun, but Tesla’s Supercharger network is everything that competitors’ charging stations are not — fast, plentiful, and, most of all, reliable. Put even more succinctly, despite many advantages, Tesla’s rivals have utterly failed to overtake the company’s leadership in recharging EVs.
What does this mean for owners of Ford, General Motors, and other cars?
Sometime early next year, both Ford and GM electric-vehicle owners will soon to be able to charge at Tesla charging stations. Most will require adapters to negotiate from the NACS Supercharger attachment to the CCS port on their vehicle. However, both automakers have said that, by 2025, their EVs — most notably Ford’s Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lightning — will offer native NACS ports along with their current CCS attachment points.
Not everything is perfect, however.
For one, Tesla chargers are not bi
Directional, that is. Ford and GM — and, presumably, Stellantis — have bragged that their electric vehicles offer bi-directional charging. More specifically, their CCS connectors not only allow their batteries to be charged, but they allow those free same electrons to reverse direction, so that the vehicle’s battery can charge a home, cottage, or even the power grid in case of an emergency. That vehicle-to-grid (V2G) reversibility plays a predominant role in Ford’s advertising for its Lightning, for instance, the humongous batteries in the Big Three’s pickups having sufficient capacity to qualify as legitimate life-savers.
Musk, meanwhile, claims that V2G is unlikely to gain widespread acceptance from the general public — and, again on this point, Motor Mouth completely agrees with Tesla’s CEO — and, though some Tesla experts have suggested that NACS ports could go both ways sometime in the future, V2G remains CCS’ ace-in-the-hole.
Follow the money
The future of CCS is, as we discussed, indeterminate. But the fact remains that automakers using NACS are, in fact, going to let their customers play in their competition’s backyard. And there will be money exchanged — if Mr. Musk is intent on not pissing off his loyal Tesla cultists — in the form of surcharges these new clients will probably have to pay to access the Supercharging network.
Automotive News quotes investment bank Piper Sandler & Co. as estimating that “Tesla will make more charging revenue from non-Tesla owners than Tesla owners by 2030 if non-Tesla owners are charged a slight premium.” Considering that Tesla also reaped US$1.78 billion in EV regulatory credits from competitive automakers last year, this deal does nothing but cement Tesla’s position as the dominant leader in the EV revolution. Perhaps, the automakers should have consulted with Jagmeet Singh before making their deal with the devil.
Elon Musk may be half a head-case, but Tesla’s Supercharger network is everything that competitors’ charging stations are not — fast, plentiful, and, most of all, reliable
Monies, more specifically American government monies, may yet prove a lifeline, however. President Biden has allotted US$7.5 billion in subsidies to fund the construction of up to 500,000 public charging stations. But — and this is why, in the EV business as all others, you always need to follow the money — only if said chargers have CCS connectors.
It’s probably worth noting at this point that part of the reason that Musk has struck these agreements with competitors recently — no, it wasn’t Lord Elon’s supposed altruism — is that the only way that Tesla could qualify for these grants is if it agreed to open up at least 7,500 of its Supercharger ports to vehicles with the CCS adapters.
So, is this VHS versus Betamax?
Where does this end up? Does this mean the demise of the CCS charging protocol? Does it mean the end for Electrify America, Chargepoint, et al?
Hard to tell. Enormously hard. There’s been all sorts of punditry citing advantages for both sides. Some claim that Ford, GM, et al have gained a recharging advantage over their “import” competition — I put “import” in quotes since, with the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act, virtually all EVs sold in America will be built in the Americas, regardless of brand. Others see Tesla as the clear winner in this meeting of automakers.
Certainly, politicians have already taken notice of the rapidity of this switch to Supercharging; Texas, for instance, just announced that all its publicly-funded charging stations will have to incorporate NACS as well as CCS ports.
Short-term considerations aside, however, Tesla almost certainly emerges from these agreements in an even stronger position. With the signing of Ford, GM and Rivian (and possibly Stellantis, Hyundai, and others) it’s tough to see how CCS becomes North America’s single charging protocol, which, whether government administrators and/or competitors’ CEOs will admit it, was always the intention. At the very least, independent charging stations will have to incorporate more — many more! — NACS-compatible plugs. At worst, the guppy appears to be swallowing the whale.
And, just so there’s no mistaking what I, an avowed Elon Musk skeptic, am saying, this submission of the legacy automakers is the direct result of the Tesla CEO’s foresight, not to mention bravery, in single-handedly building his own national – nay, global — charging network while the competition sat on their hands and waited for someone else to do their work for them. Frankly, the automotive industry’s waffling in this arena has been depressing to watch.
Toyota, Hyundai, BMW, and all the other automakers still hoping to branch out into FCEVs should be thankful that Musk also hasn’t ventured into the hydrogen business.