Why Fast-Charging EVs Won’t Be Just Like Filling the Gas Tank

Will fast-charging systems make electric vehicle recharging as fast and easy as filling up your gas tank? Cutting battery charge times from hours to minutes is a major goal of the EV industry. Fast-charging stations are being planned in private efforts from the likes of Best Buy and NRG Energy, as well as public-private partnerships such as the Department of Energy-backed The EV Project, which expects to bring hundreds of fast chargers to six U.S. states.

Despite all of this, however, Level 3 chargers will very likely remain a tiny niche compared to their slower Level 1 and 2 charging cousins; even where fast chargers are installed, it’s unlikely that drivers will find them as easy to operate as good old-fashioned gas pumps. So for anyone thinking of building a business on the promise of a drive-in, fill-and-go EV charging station future, here are some warning signs to consider:

Fast chargers cost more. Nothing’s cheaper than just plugging in your EV with an extension cord, but with this Level 1 charging it takes an average of 12 hours to recharge an EV battery. Level 2 charging stations, which deliver alternating current at 220 to 240 volts, cost about $2,000 and up today, though they cut charging time in half or better. Fast charging, however, requires direct current (DC) at much higher voltages and amperages — and higher cost. Nissan, for instance has priced its Level 3 charger at 1.47 million yen, or about $18,000. That’s way out of the market for average consumer purchase.

Fast chargers could require expert assistance. High voltages and currents may make fast charging more dangerous as well. A July article from CBS’ BNET says that Underwriters Laboratories and others involved in the EV charging field are worried about dangers of electrocution for drivers operating high-voltage DC chargers while it’s raining, for example. Trained attendants might be needed to handle recharging on a regular basis, according to some experts quoted on the subject. Charging system makers, on the other hand, say they’ve taken safety into account with systems that only energize once they’ve been coupled and isolated from any potential shock-inducing connection to the person handling the recharging system.

Fast charging standards are still in flux. Another problem will come in making sure fast-charging station plugs fit into EV sockets. That means agreeing on standards that are still being worked out. Nissan’s fast charging stations, for example, use a technical standard called CHAdeMO, developed by Tokyo Electric Power Co. and a consortium including Nissan, Mitsubishi, Fuji Heavy Industries, Toyota and more than 150 other companies. Charging station makers working with the protocol include Aker Wade, Coulomb Technologies, Eaton, Schneider Electric and ECOtality’s Blink system being used by Best Buy. Such a list that indicates the deph of support behind the standard. Last week, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun reported that The EV Project would be installing some 310 CHAdeMO-based fast chargers in the United States — a first step in its goal of becoming a global standard.

That doesn’t mean the standards race is settled. The Society of Automotive Engineers has an alternative to its SAE J1772 standard for Level 1 and 2 chargers that could incorporate Level 3 charging in the same plug (PDF). German automakers are pushing another fast charging system from Mennekes Elektrotechnik. In Texas, NRG Energy’s for-profit car-charging service includes plans for 50 fast chargers in business parking lots that will come from Aerovironment, which uses a proprietary fast-charging system.

There’s no reason that one fast-charging standard needs to become globally dominant — just look at the different wall sockets in Europe and the United States. But having multiple standards does present a VCR-Betamax quandry for any businesses planning to develop technologies or services to support fast charging. While intelligent management of car charging is expected to be a big growth area for IT-based startups, those targeting fast-charging systems might want to wait until the standards issues have been settled before placing any big bets.

Question of the week

Can fast-charging overcome cost, safety and standardization hurdles to reach mass-market penetration?