Home Port
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Quick Charge Ruminations

August 10, 2012

Mark D Larsen

The Good

Yazaki’s J1772 Plug
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The photo above shows that there are two ports under the charging lid of my Nissan Leaf SL. The one on the right accommodates J1772 plugs, whether using a dedicated Level 2 (240V) charging station like my AeroVironment EVSE or the Level 1 (120V) cableset that came with the vehicle —which I then upgraded to handle both Level 1 and Level 2 charging. For those unfamiliar with the J1772 plug, on the right is the one in my garage. You can see how its shape and pins match its corresponding receptacle above. Originally designed by automotive supplier Yazaki of Japan, this type of connector is now the universal standard for EV charging.

The larger port on the left above is for a CHAdeMO plug to connect my Leaf to a Level 3 480V DC charger, capable of filling its battery pack to 80% in less than 30 minutes. These “quick charge” systems were originally engineered, tested, and finally implemented in March 2008 by Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) and Japanese auto manufacturers Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, and later Toyota.

Hundreds of companies have now endorsed the CHAdeMO standard for quick charging. As of August 3, 2012, there were 1,582 of these stations in operation worldwide (1,304 in Japan; 214 in Europe; 64 in other countries), and well over 50,000 EVs are already equipped with the corresponding receptacle. Several charger manufacturers in the U.S. currently produce CHAdeMO models, including AeroVironment, Eaton, Blink, and Schneider.

The Bad

In this country, the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) voted to recommend Yazaki’s J1772 design in July 2009, and on January 14, 2010, its Motor Vehicle Council adopted it as the standard plug for all 120V and 240V EV charging.

Tepco’s CHAdeMO Plug
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What is inexplicable is that SAE did not address the related issue of a 480V standard at the same time. After all, it had been two years since Tepco’s CHAdeMO connection had first been implemented, right alongside Yazaki’s J1772. On the left is what a CHAdeMO plug looks like. You can see that its design matches the port on the left in my Nissan Leaf at the top of the page.

Mitsubishi had already started selling its i-MiEV with that CHAdeMO port six months earlier, and it was common knowledge by then that Nissan also intended to offer them on the SL model of its Leaf by the end of the year. Yet despite years of testing and refining that standard in Japan, SAE somehow could not get its act together to also put quick charging on its agenda when approving the J1772 plug for EVs. The only logical, default assumption among EV advocates for this omission at the time was that, since no U.S. auto company was planning to manufacture an EV with quick charge capabilities anyway, SAE had simply decided to leave those types of features and functions in the hands of the Japanese OEMs.

You can therefore well imagine the reaction when, over a year and a half later, on August 10, 2011, long after the Nissan Leaf had gone on sale, SAE announced that they had decided to reject the Japanese CHAdeMO standard and propose their own, alternative connection for quick charging, one that would combine both J1772 and 480V DC into one plug. The only reason articulated to date is that American automakers reportedly wanted to have one opening for all charging, similar to having one gas cap lid, to thus save the manufacturing costs of installing two separate ports like on Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV.

Said explanation has never really convinced me, since the Nissan Leaf actually has only one opening port, with both CHAdeMO and J1772 under the lid, again as shown at the top of the page. Moreover, I have a hard time imagining that it is so much more costly to manufacture a single port with two separate receptacles than to build one with a combined, cumbersome, and more complicated single receptacle.

The Ugly

SAE’s “FrankenPlug”
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Not long after SAE made this announcement, images of their proposed alternative began to appear on the internet, as shown in the graphic on the right. Because initial reactions labeled the combo plug a monstrosity, it has since come to be known as the “FrankenPlug.” At first the announcement was greeted with skepticism, but as the design’s image spread to more and more EV sites, it became apparent that SAE really was serious in wanting to oust the CHAdeMO standard with this combo plug.

Why? Are there, perchance, other reasons why SAE is insisting upon a different, all-in-one plug? Have there been problems with CHAdeMO? After four years on the market, has it blown too many fuses and tripped too many breakers? Does it have faulty circuitry that shorts out and starts fires? Has it caused battery damage to EVs? Have there been electrocutions? Is it known to cause grid failures? Are its safety protocols insufficient? Does it not recharge an EV as quickly as claimed? Are its efficiency losses too great from charger to battery pack? Has anyone confused the two ports and jammed a J1772 plug into a CHAdeMO receptacle, or vice-versa?

To date, I haven’t been able to find even one report of such problems. CHAdeMo appears to be working flawlessly in the literally tens of thousands of EVs that have quick charge capability. So why not simply also adopt it in the U.S. as readily as in Japan and Europe? SAE’s FrankenPlug seems to be a solution looking for a problem.

I suspect that there is more than meets the eye behind the push to standardize the FrankenPlug. It is noteworthy that SAE is actually dominated by representatives from General Motors. One might very well ask why in the world GM would be so concerned about the issue, since its Chevy Volt does not even have quick charge capability. Instead, it boasts a gasoline generator as a backup for those times when owners need to drive farther than the 40-mile range of its 16 kWh battery pack. Then again... perhaps this is the very reason SAE seeks to thwart and undermine CHAdeMO. After all, quick charging makes it possible for pure EVs like the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i-MiEV to match the Volt’s longer range —without burning gasoline.

Could it be that GM is attempting to hamstring its competitors, render their CHAdeMO ports useless, undermine the emerging quick charge infrastructure, so that its Volt will seem more appealing to consumers worried about range anxiety, at least until they get around to producing a pure EV of their own someday? Given that this is the same company that crushed the EV1, I would not put it past them. Indeed, I deem GM’s efforts to fast-track AB475 through the California legislature the same type of self-serving tactic. Without collaborating with any other affected OEMs, they managed to push through said law that there must be one EVSE per reserved parking space, rather than allow plug-sharing among multiple slots —which effectively doubled, if not quadrupled, the cost of building up a public charging infrastructure. Of course, what does GM care? Their Volt carries a fossil fuel backup onboard and thus doesn’t depend on such an infrastructure. All is fair in love, war, and... business?

To bolster its attempt to standardize the FrankenPlug in lieu of CHAdeMO, GM has recruited the endorsement of six other OEMs: BMW, Daimler, Ford, Volkswagen, and the latter’s divisions of Audi and Porsche. Yet not one of these automakers is even producing an EV with quick charge capability either! Consequently, “johnny-come-lately” SAE is mandating a non-existent standard for a non-existent plug on non-existent vehicles —the proverbial case of the tail wagging the dog. Indeed, at a recent public hearing in California, GM spokesperson Shad Balsch actually went so far as to call for an embargo of CHAdeMO —which elicited boos from those in attendance. Frankly, had I been there... I would have joined in vociferously and added cat calls and hisses. Balsch, you see, is the very same GM representative who championed the push to make AB745 the law in California. The online auto magazine Torquenews called it right when it pointed out that “the SAE committee is dominated by automakers who are fighting Nissan for electric vehicle dominance.”

It is too soon to say where that fight will lead, but with numerous CHAdeMO charging stations currently up-and-running in Washington, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Chicago, Arizona, Hawaii, and California, and many more slated to be installed during the next several months, the Japanese standard might win the battle simply because of unassailable numbers. I, of course, would like to see that outcome, since my EV is already equipped with a CHAdeMO receptacle. Time will tell.

Whatever the outcome of this unnecessary, counterproductive battle, one might ask why I even want a quick charge port in my Leaf, since overnight charging at home provides more range than needed for the overwhelming majority of my driving in this area. But that is a question for another post.