In all the hoopla over an Obama-supported EV battery company going bankrupt, it’s OK if you missed the announcement that electric cars will soon benefit from made-in-America fast charging. Is four hours too long for a charge? Well, how does 20 to 30 minutes grab you?
Electric cars aren’t exactly zooming out of the showrooms, and a key to having them succeed is making them painless for consumers. That means cheaper prices, longer range, and a charging experience equivalent to getting gas from the SaveMart. That moment is coming closer. The obvious solution—fast chargers next to the gas pumps—is now more likely.
The breakthrough is that the SAE International standards agency has finalized work on a U.S. 480-volt fast-charging standard. Until now, we’ve been dependent on the Japanese CHAdeMO standard, which is what you’ll find in the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi I-MiEV. CHAdeMO uses a totally different plug than the American 240-volt J1772, so that meant two different outlets on the car. The new U.S. standard combines 240- and 480-volt charging into a single “combo” plug to make things easier.
The good news is that Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Porsche and Volkswagen are all supporting the combo plug, so that bodes well for the future of U.S.-Europe compatibility. China has its own fast-charging standard, though, and Japan will likely stay with CHAdeMO. A full charge with any of these units will probably take 30 minutes or more, but a jump from 20 to 80 percent capacity (which is what you're actually going to need in the real world) will take only 20.
American automakers, who sit on the SAE advisory panel, say they like a combo plug better than CHAdeMO because it will allow a single charge port hidden behind what used to be the gasoline filler. OK, but the days of electrics that are converted gas cars is probably coming to an end. To really succeed, EVs need to be just that from the start. The Tesla Model S, an electric all the way, shows the advantage of this—it has the batteries mounted cleanly underneath, and trunk space both front and rear. The charge port is neatly incorporated under the left taillight lens (above).
Tesla, by the way, has opted out of the whole standards debate by creating its own network of incompatible Superchargers. CEO Elon Musk introduced me to Tesla’s charging system, and he couldn’t hide his contempt for the admittedly ugly combo plug. The Superchargers use an elegant and relatively tiny plug (the phasers on Star Trek come to mind) but the network is not currently set up to charge anything but the Tesla Model S.
On video, here's Tesla showing off its Supercharger in typically flamboyant fashion last month. It was Tesla, so of course it was earth-shattering and unprecedented:
SAE should have acted faster, because in the long wait for an American standard a network of CHAdeMO-enabled fast chargers were put in place around the U.S., including the units I visited at Cracker Barrel restaurants in Texas. These high-voltage machines cost $50,000 so it’s a big investment gone to waste unless the existing units can be converted to use the combo plug (they probably can be).
Overall, this is a good thing. With a combo socket standardized on U.S.-spec electric cars going forward, there’s an incentive to make fast charging more widely available. There’s always been a business case to make for restaurants, movie theaters, supermarkets (Whole Foods has already taken the plunge) and other go-to destinations to provide EV charging. With 480 volts, a near-dead car can be recharged in the time it takes to shop for organic peanut butter.
Here’s one way of looking at it: If organic market A has free fast charging, and organic market B doesn’t, which one are you going to patronize? The cost of the electricity is negligible, though the charger itself is a major capital investment. There’s a major boost to the green image, too.
I’ve been cruising the local public chargers and haven’t seen much use yet, but that’s to be expected. EVs are still thin on the ground, unless you’re in California (particularly San Diego, Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay Area). Forty percent of all the electrics sold are in one state. But there are definitely signs of life. For instance, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, model year 2012 plug-in hybrid sales of cars like the Chevy Volt are running at triple the rate of last year, and hybrids are up almost 50 percent compared to 2011.
Battery electrics are moving more slowly, but fast charging is just one more advantage that will make the zero emission option work better for Americans.
Also on HuffPost:
Japan's auto giant Nissan Motor executive vice president Hiroto Saikawa (L) displays the company's new luxury sedan 'Cima', which has the new hybrid system with V6-3.5 litter gasoline engine and electric motor to achieve 364-horsepower high performance and good economy efficency of 16.6km per litter at the company's headquarters in Yokohama, suburban Tokyo on April 25, 2012. Nissan will put it on the market from May. YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
Lexus RX 450h Hybrid SUV
Japan's auto giant Toyota Motor managing officer Kazuo Ohara (R) introduces the company's newly designed Lexus RX 450h hybrid SUV with a 3.5-litre V6 engine in Tokyo on April 12, 2012. Toyota will put it on the market on April 21. YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
A Fisker Karma hybrid car is displayed at the US carmaker's booth on March 6, 2012 during a press day ahead of the 82nd Geneva Motor Show in Geneva. Some 700 carmakers will be taking part in the Geneva Motor Show, which opens to the public from March 8 to 18. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
The Hyundai Sonata hybrid car on display February 2, 2012 at the 2012 Washington Auto Show at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC. The auto show runs through February 5. KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
Toyota Prius C Hybrid
The Toyota Prius C hybrid is introduced during a press preview at the North American International Auto Show at the COBO Center January 10, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan. The NAIAS opens to the public January 14th and continues through January 22nd. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Mercedes F 125 Concept Fuel Cell Hybrid
A Mercedes F 125 Concept fuel cell hybrid car is on display at the international motor show IAA (Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung) in Frankfurt/M, western Germany, on September 14, 2011. The world's biggest motor show, the IAA, is running on display at the international motor show IAA (Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung) in Frankfurt/M, western Germany, on September 14, 2011. The world's biggest motor show, the IAA, is running from September 15 to 25, 2011. PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images
BMW i8 Plug-In Hybrid All-Electric
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 17: The BMW i8 plug-in hybrid all-electric concept car makes its North American debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show on November 17, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. The car show opens to the public tomorrow and runs through November 27. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Volkswagen SUV 'Cross Coupe'
Models show off the concept SUV 'Cross Coupe' of German's Volkswagen, which is the all-whell-drive plug-in hybrid vehicle, during the Tokyo Motor Show in Tokyo on November 30, 2011. TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images
Journalists check Japanese auto giant Toyota Motor's new compact hybrid car 'Aqua', equipped with a 1.5-litter gasoline engine and an electric motor to drive the five-seater body in Tokyo on December 26, 2011. The world's highest efficiency vehicle, which achieved 35.4km/litter for fuel efficiency, started to sell here. YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
Peugeot Citroen RC Hybrid
People look at a RC hybrid car by French car maker PSA Peugeot Citroen on December 14, 2011 at the Peugeot store on the Champs Elysees avenue in Paris. PSA will experience a 'significant loss' for the second half of the year said the president of the board Philippe Varin during a hearing at the National Assembly in Paris on December 14, 2011. LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images
Toyota Camry Hybrid
Japan's auto giant Toyota Motor unveils the new 'Camry' hybrid sedan, equipped with a 2.5-litre engine with an electric motor hybrid system, during a press preview in Tokyo on September 5, 2011. Toyota started selling the mid-sized flagship sedan from September 5. YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
Toyota 'Prius A'
A cameraman takes video of the new 'Prius a' (alpha) minivan-style hybrid vehicles by Japan's auto maker Toyota Motor in Tokyo on May 13, 2011. Toyota annouced the launch of the seven-seat model equipped with a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, with the five-seat model equipped with a nickel metal hydride battery in Japan. TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images
The Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid
The Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid Facebook Race Car during the 2011 New York International Auto Show at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York April 21,2011. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
Chevy Volt Hybrid
DETROIT- NOVEMBER 30: A General Motors Chevrolet Volt goes through assembly after GM celebrated the official launch of the Chevrolet Volt hybrid electric vehicle at GM's Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly November 30, 2010 in Detroit, Michigan. The Volt extended-range electric vehicle, for which 1,000 jobs will be created by General Motors over the next two years, started production earlier this month. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
The hybrid car 'BMW ActiveE' is presented at a plant of German carmaker BMW in Leipzig, eastern Germany, 05 November 2010. BMW are expanding its Leipzig plant for the production of the newly-developed Megacity Vehicle, a zero-emission car featuring an extremly light plastic bod, and is to be produced in Leipzig from 2013. AFP PHOTO / POOL / PETER ENDIG (Photo credit should read PETER ENDIG/AFP/Getty Images)
Honda 'Fit Hybrid'
Japan's auto maker Honda Motor president Takanobu Ito introduces the company's new hybrid compact car 'Fit Hybrid', equipped with 1.3-litre electric motor and front-wheel drive during a preview at the company's headquarters in Tokyo on October 8, 2010. Honda started selling the vehicle on the Japanese market and will export to Europe as the 'Jazz Hybrid'. YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
Honda Jazz Hybrid Car
Watch a visuals overview, with design and driving shots of the Honda Jazz Hybrid car.
The Porsche Panamera S Hybrid Car Visuals
See a visuals video of the Porsche Panamera S Hybrid car.
Unveiling of The Opel Ampera Hybrid Car
See the unveiling of the Opel Ampera hybrid car at the Geneva Motor Show.
The LEXUS CT 200h Hybrid Mode Selection
Learn about LEXUS CT 200h hybrid car and its useful selection function to change Hybrid Mode to match your use.