In the North American market, Tesla uses its own proprietary plug for electric vehicle charging, which supports Level 1, 2, and DC fast charging (or DCFC). “Everyone else” (in North America) uses the J1772 standard for Level 1 and 2 charging and the CCS Type 1 standard for DCFC.
Except for Nissan, who uses CHAdeMO for DCFC on its Leaf. For better or worse, Nissan has embraced CCS on its latest electric vehicle, and CHAdeMO seems to be headed the way of the dodo. Then we’ll be left with the two DCFC standards, VHS and Betamax. I think I just dated myself…
The Nitty-Gritty Details North America’s Two Charging Standards
Plug standards may appear to be a hot mess to the casual observer; however, it wasn’t that long ago that there was no standard at all.
Let’s get a bit of perspective by taking a quick tour of the electric vehicle (or EV) charging scene from about 1996 to 2008. This was when the modern EV got a toehold in the public imagination, before the J1772 plug debuted in 2009. There were a handful of noteworthy EVs introduced during this period, including the GM EV1, the Toyota RAV4 EV, and the Tesla Roadster. None of these early disrupters used the same plug, making any type of public charging infrastructure impossible to support.
The J1772 standard was born out of a demand from California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) to establish a standard that all automakers could use and thereby enable widespread adoption. It took a few iterations, but the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) established the standard circa 2006 with Chrysler, Smart, GM, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Rivian, and Tesla agreeing to participate by 2009. By 2010 and 2011, Nissan and Chevrolet introduced their Leaf and Volt models that supported the J-1772 plug, cementing its widespread adoption.
But not universal adoption. Tesla was an early signatory to the J1772 standard but somewhat famously (infamously?) did not equip their cars with it. What happened? I’m oversimplifying this, as I’m not trying to write the definitive treatise, but what happened was the development of the Combined Charge System (CCS) standard to support DCFC.
EVs were never going to evolve past a niche without DCFC. The reason behind this is beyond the scope of a simple column, but take a look behind the fenced-off area housing the electrical equipment at any DCFC station. It houses refrigerator-sized cabinets used to convert AC to DC at high power. That’s not getting downsized by a microchip anytime soon, and you’re not installing that beast of a cabinet on your car. To charge a car fast, you need high power, and you simply cannot convert AC to DC at high enough power levels with equipment installed on the car itself, because physics.
To solve the DCFC problem, CCS was introduced. While the development of this standard had a more international flair than the J1772, we’ll refer to it couched in terms from an American perspective. The solution adopted circa 2011 in Germany by Audi, BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Porsche, and Volkswagen was simply adding two DC pins to the J1772 plug– and voilà, the CCS Type 1 was born. (In Europe, the pins are added to the Mennekes plug, and the combination is called the CCS Type 2).
Tesla looked at this “combined” AC and DC solution and balked. Many early adopters, myself included, derisively referred to this new CCS plug as the Frakenplug. So despite being an early signatory to the J1772 standard, Tesla developed their own proprietary plug that combines the AC and DC capability into one sleek package. The key difference is that on Tesla’s plug, the pins within the plug for AC and DC are shared depending on the flavor of the electrical supply; if AC is being used, those two pins are AC, but if DC is being used, those pins are DC.
This resulted in the creation of two competing standards, but in 2012 when the Model S (the first EV to use the new Tesla standard) was first released, there really wasn’t too much in the way of competition. Now fast forward to 2023, and there is unnecessary confusion in the market just as competition is starting to heat up, which is bound to hurt EV sales in some way. Tesla did offer their design to other manufacturers, but the rumors were that the royalty fee was exorbitant. Regardless of the reason, no other manufacturer opted to use Tesla’s design– with the notable exception of some EVs from smaller manufacturers, which have yet to see the light of day as of February 2023.
That’s the summary of how we, in North America, came to have two competing standards for charging EVs. Other markets, such as the EU, have a more top-down approach to market regulation, where Tesla has conformed to the market-required CCS Type 2 standard.
So where does that leave the consumer?
If you drive (or are considering) a Tesla, you can pretty much charge anywhere, because adapters. Tesla supplies an adapter for the J1772 car with every EV they sell, and that’s because while the Tesla proprietary plug looks different, electrically, it is very similar to the J-plug, making it a simple adapter to make. You can even charge your Tesla at non-Tesla charging stations because, for a few hundred dollars, you can pick up the more complex adapter that goes from Tesla to CCS or even CHAdeMO.
The inverse is not true for “everyone else.” You can buy an adapter to charge your J1772 standard EV at a Tesla Level 1 or Level 2 station, but even that has an asterisk attached (more on that next week).
Far more interesting is the possibility of charging a CCS Type 1 standard EV at a Tesla DCFC (a.k.a Supercharger). Such an adapter could potentially be produced, but they would need coordination with Tesla because Superchargers do a VIN verification and account check before initiating a charging session. As of February 2023, this kind of adapter is not available.
But there is a crack in the dam. The recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act offers US taxpayer funding of DCFC installations, if (and only if) the infrastructure supports the publicly available standard. The EU market has similar requirements, and Tesla has started to comply by allowing non-Tesla cars to charge at their Superchargers within the EU. Tesla has also publicly stated the same will occur in the US, and even set a date at the end of 2022 for that to begin. It obviously did not happen on schedule, but it is still expected to happen soon-ish.
And once that happens, at least in theory, the plug on your car shouldn’t matter anymore as there will always be an adapter at the ready.
Next week’s topic will be (surprise) charging adapters.
Common Charging Standards
Note 1– Whereas CCS Type 1 and 2 remove pins and add pins for their DCFC plugs, Tesla uses the same pins. This makes the car responsible for detecting the type of electricity used, and ensuring equipment internal to the car switches accordingly.
Note 2– Note the “missing pins” would be “hot” and “neutral” for Level 1, both hot for Level 2, but are not used for DCFC. The “extra” pins are for DC positive and negative.
Note 3– Note the “missing pins” would be for the three AC phases, but are not used for DCFC. The “extra” pins are for DC positive and negative. My personal speculation is one reason Tesla quickly started to adopt Mennekes and CCS Type 2 in the EU is that their proprietary plug can’t support 3-phase AC charging, which puts them at a disadvantage.
Note 4– It appears CHAdeMO is on life support in North America, the Nissan Leaf being the only EV in 2023 still using this.