Electric Car Charging Systems and Compatibility

May 26th, 2016

Consider this scenario: You’re taking the family on a long trip, and the gas gauge is about to hit the empty zone, and you soon locate a sign about gas stations at the next exit. With fingers crossed that there’s enough gas left in the tank, you turn to the offramp and, within a few minutes, you pull up at the first source of fuel.

As you pull, you see a huge sign saying that the type of gas supplied only works in a Ford. But you’re driving a Jeep. What do you do?

So you drive to another gas station, only to discover that it only supports a Honda or a Toyota.

It’s the picture of absurdity. You buy fuel based on the octane rating. If you have a diesel vehicle, there are fewer sources of fuel, but one is essentially as good as another. How could it be otherwise?

But now imagine you are driving a motor vehicle that’s 100% electric. While you can plug it into a handy outlet at your home, what about on the road? Well, Tesla Motors has a reported 600 charging stations around the world for its cars. It’s not a lot by any means, which may argue against buying one in many cities, but at least you know where you stand. As the user base, so will the number of charging facilities.

In passing, I wonder how Tesla will cope with those 400,000 preorders for the Model 3 mid-sized sedan that’s supposed to start shipping by the end of next year. If they can somehow manage to increase production to respectable levels — and it’s clear they are trying — that will create a situation where many more charging stations will be required.

Now consistent with all those rumors that Apple is developing a car, perhaps one in direct competition to a Tesla, there’s a report from Reuters that Apple is engaged in talking to companies that build charging stations. The end result would be to roll out charging stations around the world, same as Tesla, for the Apple Car.

All fine and good.

But I have a question: Would an Apple Car be able to hook up to the connector at a Tesla station for rapid charging? Would a Tesla be able to hook up to Apple’s charging station? Assuming they all use standard power plugs, no doubt they’d work just fine. Having both companies providing charging facilities would only make it more convenient for customers who buy these vehicles.

But if there are fast-charging schemes and other technological differences that might reduce compatibility, that would have to be considered. Ideally, companies who build electric cars would want to get together to make sure that customers have the widest possible selection of charging facilities. In these early days of mass-produced electric cars, any non-compatibility question would be a disservice to drivers.

I suppose that Apple and Tesla might need to work together in other ways. In 2014, Tesla broke ground on a Gigafactory, a huge battery plant, in Sparks, Nevada. Production of battery cells is set for 2017, and it is supposed to reach full capacity by 2020. The latter is when Apple might be ready to begin building cars; that is, if all the rumors are correct. At the very least, Apple is spending lots of time and R&D money exploring the possibilities.

Assuming Tesla has the capacity, wouldn’t it make sense to sign up Apple as a customer? Indeed, if production capacity isn’t sufficient, it might provide reason to build a second or a third battery plant to handle the needs of both companies.

Sharing technology is nothing new in the car industry. Various industry players have long cooperated on various technologies for the sake of economy of scale, and to benefit all those involved. Indeed, it is reported that Volkswagen once attempted to make a deal with Mercedes-Benz for its BlueTEC diesel emission control technology. However, the engineers (and perhaps the bean counters) at VW decided that they could do better to control emissions all by themselves.

And that’s where the VW cheating scandal began. But that’s way beyond the scope of the article. What’s important to me is that electric car makers need to consider possible interoperability standards, so everyone is on the same page when it comes to charging stations and other facilities needed to keep your vehicle running. An Android smartphone and an iPhone can, assuming product support, work on the same wireless carrier or ISP.

If Tesla’s dream comes true, there will someday be thousands of charging stations. As technology improves, the cars will spend more time and more miles on the road before charging is needed, and it will take less time to bring the battery back to full capacity so you can continue on your trip.

This is obviously quite early in the game, but Apple will no doubt not get involved in building and selling cars until all the potential downsides are considered and solved. I would also expect that the Apple Car would differ from the Tesla in some way to make it a compelling alternative. Apple, remember, doesn’t just duplicate what other companies do, but expands the state of the art while resolving problems that improve the customer experience.

However, I doubt I’ll be buying one, ever, unless the price hits an affordable level, and I have the money to make that investment. I might just be too old to care, but it’s nice to dream, or visit an casino bonus to get off some steam.

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One Response to “Electric Car Charging Systems and Compatibility”

  1. dfs says:

    Say all the nasty things about Big Oil you want, you will have to admit that they have great infrastructure. You can drive between just about any two points in the continental USA and be reasonably confident you won’t run out of gas along the way. In contrast, no alternate-source energy has anything remotely resembling an adequate infrastructure, This of course raises the question who pays to install such an infrastructure. Remarkably, in retrospect, Big Oil did so out of its own pocket, and the gamble paid off handsomely for them. In the case of electric cars, this would require a very huge number of recharging stations. It is easy enough to imagine some of thes could be funded privately (e. g. by hotels and motels, for the benefit of their guests), it is hard to imagine this being done on sufficient scale by some scheme like Apple’s/Tesla’s. That would require their competitors to create duplicate infrastructures of their own, which would drive up the cost of the whole thing enormously. It could only be achieved by a massive infusion of taxpayer money, and we all know how likely that is.

    |And, by the way, if everybody drove an electric car this would create an enormous drain on our power grid. This would probably require the construction of many new generating plants, which raises the further question of who would pay for these?

    But if these knotty problems aren’t solved to everybody’s satisfaction, the electric car is, by and large, doomed to remain what all of them except maybe the Tesla currently are: glorified golf carts.

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