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Has China 'Messed Up' Its Electric-Car Charging Standards?

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courtesy Bentley

courtesy Bentley

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Recent electric car news from China might lead you to believe things are finally on the up, after years of poor sales and uncertainty.

There is still though one major hurdle the country needs to overcome before electric cars are fully viable--charging standards.

It's an issue debated in every country that has decided to promote electric car so far, and one that automakers and governing bodies have worked hard to standardize over the last few years.

Although there's still no single global standard, some countries are doing better than others. China, says Alysha Webb on her ChinaEV Blog, is still a bit of a mess--there's no single standard, no standardized connector and often, little chance that your own chosen electric vehicle will be able to charge at a local charging station.

Charging in China does have its advantages.

For one, Level 2 charging is essentially standardized. Like Europe, China's standard AC output is 220V, rather than the 110V you'll get from a regular wall outlet in the U.S. Of course, many U.S. electric car owners charge at 240V anyway, from dedicated charging outlets in their garage.

MORE: China To Mandate One-Third Of Government Vehicles Be Plug-Ins

China does have an AC standard for regular charging posts located on the street and in parking lots--called GB/T 20234.2-2011--but according to a Tesla spokesperson, this standard "lacks definition" and lacks compatibility with various brands.

A good example of this is the recent installation of 20 new charging stations by Chinese businessman and Tesla Model S owner Zong Yi.

The high-profile move drew praise from Tesla, and should make it easy for Zong and other Tesla owners to charge up between Guangdong and Beijing. But as Tesla itself notes, the connectors installed will not work with other electric vehicle brands.

There's no DC standard either for fast charging. There's no communication standard, ensuring that various types of electric vehicle can safely charge at a particular station. And as noted, no connection standard.

For a country relying heavily on a charging network to spur EV adoption, that's something of an oversight.

MORE: China Decides Electric Cars Are Important Enough To Waive Tax On Their Purchase

Several automakers are taking the matter into their own hands--perhaps worried that this lack of vision will harm electric vehicle sales.

BMW, VW, Daimler, Ford and GM all sell electric vehicles--or intend to sell them in China--and all have collaborated on the Charging Interface Initiative Asia initiative--a group that aims to encourage China into adopting a combined plug standard like those found in Europe and the U.S.

It's not clear whether China will adopt these suggestions--the country wants to develop its own standard--but speaking to an ex-GM electrification manager in China, David Reeck, Webb says the German automakers are already planning an "aggressive" demonstration of their new combined standard plug.

That may be the only way to force a useful, compatible standard on the Chinese electric vehicle market.

Even then, it could be 2016 before a DC standard is formalized. Until then, Chinese electric car owners--even those with Teslas--may simply have to ensure they always know which chargers their car is compatible with.

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