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GM and ABB: An Afterlife for the VOLT Electric Car

By MATTHEW L. WALD ABB; General MotorsA battery pack from a Chevy Volt. A new prototype lashes five of them together in an array that is supposed to provide two hours of electricity for three to five average houses. Advocates of electric cars and renewable energy have talked for years about repackaging the battery packs built […]

Blink’s new CEO says that even with the largest charger network in U.S., bigger is better


The Nissan Leaf is the most mainstream electric vehicle in the U.S., and it has a CHAdeMO DC fast-charge option. Ecotality’s Blink network offers CHAdeMO chargers. Ecotality is the managing organization behind The EV Project, which recently announced it had collected information on 24 million electric vehicle miles. So, if any group would have an opinion about the potential challenge to CHAdeMO from the SAE combo charger announcement, Ecotality would be that group.

To find out, we spoke with Donald Karner, Ecotality’s chief innovation officer, who said what others in the charging business told us during the Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS26): the cars – and EV buyers – will dictate which standard wins.

“We’re in the infrastructure business,” Karner said. “We supply infrastructure to fuel advanced vehicles. We’ve done hydrogen, we do level 2 AC. On the DC side, if and when vehicles come to market that utilize the combo connector in sufficient numbers that justifies us making the investment in installing those connectors and developing chargers that will operate under that protocol, of course we will.”

Can we accommodate two different standards? Yeah, we can do that. Is it going to cost more? Absolutely.

As you can see in the picture above, the Blink fast charger is dual port. “We did that a year and a half ago,” Karner said. “The guys back here [he indicates a competitor’s booth] are now saying, ‘oh, what everybody should do is dual port so that you can do CHAdeMo on one side and combo on the other side. Well, that’s exactly why we did that. A year and a half ago, we went to the SAE and said, ‘look, you guys have a problem. You are two years behind schedule. DC fast chargers are coming, the Nissan Leaf with CHAdeMo is coming. We’re sitting here as an EVSP [electric vehicle service provider] and we have to build a charger to service this. There’s no U.S. standard. What are you guys going to do?’ And the answer from the SAE committee was, ‘Not our problem. We don’t care. We’re going to focus on J1772 AC and that’s all we can do at one time.’

Now, there are clearly some competitive issues in there (between the automakers) so here the auto industry has shot itself in the foot again. Can we accommodate two different standards? Yeah, we can do that. Is it going to cost more than having one standard? Absolutely it’s going to cost more. Fast charging is already very expensive and the auto companies, because they couldn’t get along and are going to squabble, just like they did last time with inductive and conductive, are going to shoot themselves in the foot.”

I worry that we’re going to have garages burn down with Level 1 [chargers].

Karner said that, inside a DC fast charging station, energy from the grid is converted to DC power and there is a control piece that talks to the vehicle and then sends energy through the specific connector to he vehicle. When comparing CHAdeMO with the SAE combo charger, obviously the plug is different, but Karner said that the protocol is different, too, and, “it appears that you will need a different power section as well. A unit that meets the CHAdeMO specs would not meet the SAE specs. Of course, this is all speculation since, as of right now there is no North American standard. There is only the proposal for a standard.” Still, Karner said, “One can think about conspiracy theories that maybe that’s the way they wanted it be, or one could say that it’s too bad that that’s the way it happened. If it is, it is, but it will drive even more cost because, regardless of what the guys back here do, there will be tens of thousands of vehicles in the marketplace with CHAdeMO connectors on them before the first Combo connector vehicle ever hits the street, which right now is going to be the Chevy Spark, sometime in 2013.”

Karner said that we can’t yet know the difference in cost between the combo charging station and the CHAdeMO station, but guessed that it shouldn’t be too dramatic. The real cost will come from the non-recurring engineering costs and things like getting UL certification. “It’s unfortunate that the industry could not, as it did this time with the Level 2 AC connector, come to an agreement on a single DC-level connector,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anybody that would argue that the industry would not be better off with one DC standard. Of course, the SAE guys are going to argue that it should be theirs and the CHAdeMO guys will argue that it should theirs. That’s not our argument. We’re just sitting here saying it would be whole lot easier to have one that serves everybody instead of two.”

The chargers out in the field today are, of course, mostly being used by early adopters. Thus, Karner said, most of them are charging at home because they bought their vehicles before there was much of a public infrastructure available. From what he sees, most Leaf drivers charge with Level 2. With Chevrolet Voltdrivers, a larger percentage charge using only standard 110-volt outlets, and he expects to see the same thing with the Toyota Prius Plug-In. Karner said this reality could pose a problem.

We need people to feel comfortable that, ‘gee, if I need to go 120 miles in a day, I can do that.’

Karner is not a fan of regular Level 1 charging for a few reasons. First, the grid is better served by timed, quicker Level 2 charges rather than trickle charges. Second, most of the 110-volt charging cables are rated at 12 amps, and drawing 12 amps through a potentially old socket can heat up and corrode said socket. “We’re seeing, at a fairly alarming rate, that plugs melt,” he said. “Everyone is saying, ‘well, there’s something wrong with the plug. Well, it’s really the receptacle because that receptacle can’t transmit that level of power continuously. It just wasn’t made to do that. The receptacle itself has better heat transfer than the plug does, so the plug tends to get hot and melt. So, I worry that we’re going to have garages burn down and that type of thing with Level 1.”

The early adopters are very home-centric. Blink is working on education programs to teach them where public chargers are, so they get used to fueling their vehicles while shopping or out for entertainment. “As an industry, it is really important to us to have more than cars that only fulfill a mission that tethers them to home,” Karner said. “We need people to feel comfortable that, ‘gee, if I need to go 120 miles in a day, I can do that.’ That way, it doesn’t have to be a second or third car, it can be a first car. It’s developing that familiarity and that habit.

“We also want to get people who don’t have a place to charge overnight. The ’emerging mainstream’ is where we’re at now. We’re going to see those people in those multi-unit dwellings get EVs, and it’s going to be a lot easier for them to go to a DC fast charge station. There will be some work charging, but some employers don’t even provide parking for their employees, so we can’t rely on them. But the public infrastructure will encourage people in the emerging mainstream to seriously consider a plug-in vehicle.”