By David Knight & Brenda Cucci
Much Is Happening In The World Of Electric Vehicles, Including Announcements By Tesla, Ford, GM & Others That Are Shaking Up The EV World
The Impact of Tesla
Without a doubt, Tesla is almost singularly responsible for triggering the biggest evolution of the automotive industry in over 100 years.
In the beginning, Tesla vehicles and then solar systems and battery storage units were sold to single-family homeowners who could afford these products.
Early on it became necessary to support charging when a Tesla owner was outside of their neighborhood radius, leading to the development of the Tesla charging network. The network consists of both Destination Chargers, which are similar to home charging units, and Superchargers which are high-speed. Given their respective characteristics, the slower Destination Chargers tend to be found at locations such as hotels where the vehicle can be parked for a long duration. Superchargers, which are categorized as DC Fast Chargers, are typically found along highways or at retail locations where the driver wants to get charged and back on the road as quickly as possible.
The EV Explosion
Whereas ten years ago the two primary battery EV makers were Nissan and Tesla, we’ve seen an incredible range of new models being introduced in all categories and price points ranging from two-seater ‘city cars’ to buses and long-haul trucks.
Despite the tidal wave of newcomers, Tesla has maintained its lead and leadership in both market share and technology. However with all of this, and massive investments by both governments and companies in rare metals mining, battery production, EV manufacturing plants and other elements of the ‘EV Ecosystem’ the BEV market has not yet reached the mainstream.
One of the biggest obstacles to mainstream EV adoption has been public perception, primarily in the area of charging. When driving outside of their home radius, or for apartment dwellers, EV owners must rely upon chargers operated by third parties. A handful of commercial charging networks emerged targeting non-Tesla EV owners. However there have been real issues with the rollout of these networks, including many instances where the charging units show up on a map but when the driver reaches them, the units are found to be non-functional or unavailable. The frustration caused by this has resulted in much bad press, leading many drivers and commercial fleet operators to postpone their adoption of EVs.
Tesla-Ford-GM: “More Than The Plug”
Until recently, the Tesla charging network was intended solely for the use of Tesla car owners. Then in 2021, Tesla began ‘opening up’ its network in Europe and elsewhere to other EV brands using the CCS plug format. In the U.S., substantial funding for EV charging infrastructure is coming via the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. In order to access a portion of those funds, Tesla last year began introducing a “Magic Dock” to its charging units, which allow the use of an adapter to mate with the CCS charging port found on non-Tesla EV models. Having to retrofit chargers obviously adds cost, and drivers dealing with adapters is a hassle and often produces inconsistent results depending upon how the (non-Tesla) automaker has implemented its charging software onboard the vehicle.
Now in a move that takes Tesla’s dominance even further, Ford and GM, the two other leading U.S. automakers besides Tesla, have announced that they will add sockets to their vehicles based on the Tesla format, with Ford saying that they will offer both plug-types, and GM saying they will replace CCS with Tesla’s format known as NACS, or the North American Charging Standard. This will reduce the need for drivers to carry adapter cables. However unlike with gasoline pumps, there is more to EV charging than just the plug: for a charger to dispense electricity, a digital ‘handshake’ must occur between the vehicle and the charging unit, which in the case of publicly available chargers then leads to a further handshake between the charging unit and some form of system that must authorize the charging session. In other words, merely plugging in doesn’t necessarily cause electrons to flow.
Typically, a driver must have an account with the charging network operator, usually accessed via a mobile app. There are exceptions where a credit card or mobile payment method can be used instead of a network membership, and in the case of certain CCS-based vehicles, a protocol called Plug and Charge enables some level of automation. In the case of Tesla’s proprietary network, an account must be in place before charging can be initiated. In the case of Tesla cars, this is all handled in the background and by the vehicles themselves using built-in cellular transceivers, and the driver has no obligation to install a mobile app nor do anything specific other than follow the car’s guidance to an available Tesla charger. This results in a seamless, trouble-free experience that is far superior to other charging installations or networks. Additionally, Tesla chargers are continually maintained and typically situated in well-lit, relatively safe locations. All of these factors contribute to the Tesla charging network being the preferable system.
Ford, GM and soon likely other automakers have decided that giving their EV drivers an experience similar to Tesla’s is not achievable with the existing ‘early adopter’ charging networks. Therefore they are not only introducing the Tesla-compatible receptacle on their upcoming models, they will also work with Tesla to incorporate software-based features that allow the vehicles to communicate with the Tesla network similarly to Tesla cars. This is at least as important as their adoption of the NACS plug type, as it moves the industry towards better driver experiences and helps to promote EV adoption by making charging more seamless for a larger percentage of EV models.
Much More To Solve
In addition to Tesla’s and the first-mover commercial charging networks, there are well over 100 large-scale systems being built or planned in North America alone, part of a global investment totaling 170 billion dollars. A portion of these funds will come from the U.S. federal government, along with direct investments by individual states and numerous major corporations. Some of these charging networks will be open to consumers whereas some will be focused on commercial EV operations. Additionally, large trucks and buses, as well as construction and farming equipment, will require chargers with very high outputs, which are not achievable with either CCS or NACS. Plus, although numerous, the Tesla chargers tend to be situated where Tesla owners are likely to drive, which excludes large areas of cities and the country. Currently in the U.S. there are 130,000 publicly available chargers including Tesla’s and other networks. The National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure or NEVI initiative along with the federal Charging and Fueling Infrastructure or CFI grants are providing 7.5 billion dollars for state and local governments to install chargers in areas not necessarily attractive for commercial charging networks to operate. The goal of these programs is to add 500,000 publicly available fast chargers across the country.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Standardizing charging plugs and introducing automated digital access by vehicles are major steps in improving the EV charging experience in the United States. However much needs to be done in order to meaningfully replace internal combustion as the dominant form of propulsion. This includes digitally synchronizing the many charging units, networks and vehicles regardless of manufacturer or ownership, bringing the power utilities into the digital conversation to ensure that grid loading by rapid chargers doesn’t adversely impact the grid, enabling vehicle-to-grid connections to offload the utilities when possible, utilizing physical world data such as meteorological conditions to accurately calculate battery range, establishing procedures for dealing with natural disasters and formulating a national scheme for replacing fuel taxes with ‘electron taxes’ so that roads continue to be maintained as zero-emissions vehicles become dominant. Technologies such as cloud computing, 5G wireless and AI will be key enablers in these solutions. More To Come.
About The Authors
David Knight is the Founder and CEO of Terbine, applying AI and cloud computing to provide the next level in EV charging experience aka The Digital Side of EV Infrastructure. A serial entrepreneur, his background is in core technologies including multi-spectral sensing and communications, digital audio, messaging, enterprise software and distributed systems. Prior to founding Terbine, he was centrally involved with sending 3D and VR cameras to the International Space Station (ISS), leading to the development of a high-fidelity digital twin of the ISS in partnership with NASA.
Brenda Cucci is Senior Partner for Global Sustainability with IBM, leading go-to-market strategy for Sustainability, ESG and Responsible Business. She works with each part of IBM to help incorporate sustainable practices into all areas of clients’ enterprises. This includes how commercial activities impact the well being of our planet and societies via carbon release, water waste, supply chain inefficiencies, diversity equity and inclusion, and its leadership makeup including their boards. Brenda has been in the technology space for over 20 years including HP, Cisco, Xerox, Unisys, Accenture and now IBM.