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Will Euro-Squabbles Cripple Cross-Border Electric Car Charging?

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Scenes from dedication of electric-car charging station at Creekside Inn, Palo Alto, CA

Scenes from dedication of electric-car charging station at Creekside Inn, Palo Alto, CA

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Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, said the philosopher Santayana.

And there seems to be a very real chance that Europe is heading toward a variety of multiple and incompatible electric-car charging standards.

That's a path the U.S. rejected a decade ago. And it's one that would inconvenience all European buyers of plug-in cars.

In the beginning ...

So let's revisit a bit of electric-car history, shall we?

Toyota RAV4e electric vehicle, San Francisco, March 2010

Toyota RAV4e electric vehicle, San Francisco, March 2010

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Starting about 15 years ago, when major automakers built 4,400 zero-emission vehicles and sold them in California, not every model had the same charging arrangement.

Three cars--GM's EV1 and its Chevy S-10 pickup truck, plus the Nissan Altra--used an inductive paddle, similar to but thicker than the one on the Toyota RAV4 EV. Public inductive charging stations were marked "LPI" (for Large Paddle Inductive) or "SPI" (Small Paddle Inductive).

Other electric cars from Ford and Honda used conductive connectors that were entirely different, with another set of public charging stations. And plug-in drivers had to keep maps not just of charging stations, but the right charging stations for their specific car.

J-1772 to the rescue

The U.S. electric car industry learned from that regrettable experience. Between the end of that era and last December, when the first Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt were delivered, it developed a standard plug and cable to be used by all electric cars.

Home-made J-1772 adaptor for Tesla Roadster charging cord, built and used by Michael Thwaite

Home-made J-1772 adaptor for Tesla Roadster charging cord, built and used by Michael Thwaite

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That's known as the J-1772 standard, after the number assigned to it by the Society of Automotive Engineers. It is the North American standard, different from the standard charging plug used in Japan and other Asian countries.

With one exception*, every plug-in car sold in the U.S. now uses the J-1772 plug, meaning they can recharge at any public Level 2 charger (except for the 15-year-old ones).

North America, Japan, Europe

Very few consumers want to drive from the U.S. to Japan.

But that's not the case within the European Union, where hundreds of thousands of vehicles each week travel among countries that have opened their borders to one another.

While some countries, the U.K. among them, expect most charging to be done at home, many electric car owners will want to travel longer distances. For instance: here, here, and here.

Germans v French and Italians

While hundreds of public charging points are now being installed across the U.K. and Europe, they are essentially "dumb" outlets, without the software protocols that will let them communicate with the vehicle or the electric utility.

Renault Fluence EV

Renault Fluence EV

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That's because, unlike the U.S., efforts to develop a common European charging standard have thus far foundered.

Germany appears to want a single plug that permits both standard Level 2 (230-Volt) and DC quick-charge capabilities.

Critics say that would be large and unwieldy. In contrast, the 2011 Nissan Leaf sold in the States offers a separate Japanese-spec CHAdeMO quick-charge plug as an option.

France and Italy, on the other hand, aren't convinced that a single unified plug is the answer. And their representatives also want child-safety shutters on the various components so that, for instance, a child couldn't stick a nail into the receptor.

More assessments coming

The standardization committee continues to discuss and debate, with another round of technology assessments of the competing proposals on the horizon. Some recent reports have been pessimistic about that prospect.

Last week, a top Ford executive--Wulf-Peter Schmidt, Ford of Europe’s manager of sustainability--warned that Europe's adoption of zero-emission electric cars could be seriously damaged if different countries adopted different plugs.

We hope the various factions come to an agreement on a single standard, and roll it out as fast as possible. Otherwise, all Europeans--particularly those who want to drive electric cars or get access to zero-emission city cores--will be the losers.

[EurActiv, Automotive News (subscription required), Pike Research, WhatCar?]

* The only production electric car sold in the U.S. today that doesn't use a standard J-1772 plug is the 2011 Tesla Roadster, which went on sale late in 2008, before the standard had been finalized. Tesla now offers an optional $750 J-1772 adaptor so Tesla drivers can use public charging stations.

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