Why We Need Open Charge Protocols for Electric Cars in the U.S.

By · September 27, 2013

It's one thing to know that EV stations exist. And at this stage, another thing to know that you can, without a doubt, gain access and pay.

The Open Charge Alliance (OCA) this week launched a global standards initiative in the electric vehicle charging industry. The organization, which replaces an existing organization, the OCPP Steering Group, is a global consortium of electric vehicle charging infrastructure companies. It is aiming to solve the problem of electric car owners having to maintain memberships with multiple charging networks; as well as the limitations that closed proprietary networks place on the expansion of EV charging infrastructure. The OCA's solution is to create open standards for all charging station networks.

Open Standards, Open Access

OCPP, or Open Charge Point Protocol, is a data communications protocol used by several charging station manufacturers and charging networks. However, OCPP isn't the only game in town, and some major electric vehicle charging networks instead use closed proprietary protocols to manage their networks.

The alliance claims that the biggest challenge in electric vehicles today isn't range anxiety, but open access to charging stations. The U.S. electric car charging market is dominated by closed proprietary networks, such as the one used by Ecotality, which recently filed for bankruptcy.

Meanwhile in Europe, OCPP is the common protocol. Site owners can mix and match charging stations and choose a network provider that provides the best experience for drivers. “For the past several years we have promoted the benefits of OCPP in order to make EV networks accessible. In that short amount of time, OCPP has become the accepted protocol in 50 countries and over 10,000 stations,” said Onoph Caron, founding member of the Open Charge Alliance and director of E-laad. “The enduring nature of OCPP—an open protocol with no cost or licensing barriers to adoption—has given it a strong foothold and deep relevance in Europe and other markets.”

Standards and Bankruptcy

To the Open Charge Alliance, the bankruptcies of ECOtality and Better Place are symptomatic of a larger issue in the U.S. electric vehicle charging industry. OCA co-founder Brett Hauser, who also serves as president of GreenLots, recently wrote in a blog post, "Though both were early pioneers in the EV charging space, many believe their fatal flaw was the closed network model adopted by both."

Many see closed systems as creating barriers that business leaders like to call "proprietary lock-in."

One effect is that charging station host site owners are not free to switch from one charging network to another, without ripping out the charging station and replacing it with a different one. That would be like having to throw out your WiFi router when switching Internet service providers—but thanks to open standards, that's not necessary. On the other hand, switching cell phone providers often means throwing away a perfectly good phone, because of proprietary lock-in.

This issue raises the question of what will happen to ECOtality's Blink charging network as that company goes through bankruptcy. It's possible, but unlikely, the Blink charging stations will be abandoned, with proprietary software making host sites unable to reconfigure the stations to connect with another charging network.

Configuring an OCPP-compliant charging station to connect with an OCPP charging network is similar to configuring a WiFi router to connect with an Internet Service Provider. Additionally, charging stations can be reconfigured to connect with another charging network if the host site owner desires.

Roaming Access to Charging Stations

EV drivers carry multiple membership cards.

Using OCPP is a good back-end solution for charging station networks, but what about the problem of electric car drivers needing to carry multiple membership cards? OCPP doesn't support exchanging authentication data or settling payments between charging station networks. Those two capabilities would form the basis of "roaming" where a member of one charging station network could use stations belonging to another network.

There are several efforts are underway to design communication protocols to support better payment systems. One of those projects, CollaboratEV, was jointly launched by ChargePoint and ECOtality last spring, and is supposed to begin operation by the end of 2013. However ECOtality's bankruptcy will obviously impact CollaboratEV. The other, Intercharge, is being developed in Europe. The end result of both would allow "roaming" letting electric car owners charge with other charging networks similarly to how we use ATMs today. Other much-needed solutions are expected to soon emerge in the marketplace.

OCA is not pushing for a specific communications protocol for roaming features, and recognizes that current protocols are not designed for that purpose. Instead, the alliance is positioning OCPP as a platform for developing that roaming protocol.

The California Legislature recently passed legislation, the Electric Vehicle Charging Stations Open Access Act, that includes a mandate for open and roaming access to charging stations. Assuming Governor Brown signs the legislation, the roaming requirement will go into effect in 2015.


· · 4 years ago

Why are open access and payment models so out of touch with reality when it comes to Electric Vehicle public charging stations? Roaming access is not Open access if requires prior membership or account with a vendor. Alliances and governoment regulation can either help, or hinder an industry depending on motivations and implementation details.

A charge station is very similar conceptually to a vending machine supplying bottled water. 80% of water people consume is at home, (or office) but occasionally people need hydration on the go. To use a vending machine we use the local common currency (in form of cash, or credit card). No vender specific keycards, membership, nor registration needed! Payment is by bottle ("unit"); and not time-based, (e.g. number of bottle can retrieve in 2-minute period), nor by predetermined packages (3-bottle packs, or 1oz sized bottles).

The quality of experience determines the success of a vending location. If a particular brand of machine is broken or only delivers warm water, customers will seek out alternatives or plan activities based on their home source of drinking water.

The sooner charge station vendors drop gimmicked payment models, the more accepting the community will be to their service offerings. As the EV community continues to grow, those charge station vendors that best address the needs of customers will too grow, other providers will fade away.

· · 4 years ago

You raise a point I could have put into the article. Largely I agree with you. In May I had the chance to interview Pat Romano, CEO of ChargePoint, about CollaboratEV. What he told me when I asked this question is that the, because charging station transactions are small, the business would be swamped by credit card fees.

Credit card fees that are a minor annoyance for large purchases, are large for small transactions.

At least, that's what Pat explained. He, of course, has to defend ChargePoint's model of doing business and make the best case for their continued existence.

· · 4 years ago

"Credit card fees that are a minor annoyance for large purchases, are large for small transactions."

Isn't this problem easy to solve? Just pass on the credit card fee to the consumer, if the bill is below $10 or so.

· · 4 years ago

I don't buy the argument that they would be "swamped by credit card fees".

My wife is a crafter, and she has a Square attachment for her smartphone that allows her to accept credit cards. The only fee is 2.75% of the transaction. Now consider the fact that chargepoints in Syracuse are priced at $2.40/hr. That means credit card fees would be 6.6 cents/hour.

· · 4 years ago

RE: "swamped by credit fees"
Did Pat tell you how much it costs to use his system, or anyone's implementation of an OCPP "central system"? Does anyone know how much any of the EV-specific transaction systems cost, on a per-transaction basis? How much are the fixed fees? What is the transaction-value adder? What claims is anyone representing OCA or OCPP saying about cost? How do the claims compare to typical credit card interchange fees?

· · 4 years ago

My wife also uses one of these smartphone card swipers to accept payments from her violin students and it's a tiny percentage for the transaction fee . . . same as Brian's wife. Certainly businesses who "buy" this banking service in quantity would probably get even better rates.

Several years ago it wasn't uncommon to be asked at certain retail establishments to make a purchase of at least $5 if I was using a debit card or check. Now, almost nobody will take a check and I don't get hit any longer with extra fees or a minimum purchase requests when, say, I'm spending less than $5 on a coffee and snack.

· · 4 years ago

What I think is out of line is pricing. It is $1 for 1 hour for Blink. On a Ford plug-in that's $3 or $4 for about 20 miles on a L2 charger and it is going to cost you a huge chunk of time. The same amount of money will get you 40 miles with gas and don't forget about the time. It's much more for a L3 and since you can only get 20 miles it is a worse deal.

If commercial charging stations want to be economically viable they are going to have to compete with gas especially for the fast growing plug-in market.

If you have a Leaf you have to use the chargers on the road, but a plug-in Prius will choose a gas station.

If they are worried about exchange fees they should bill monthly.

· · 4 years ago


I agree completely that they should consider themselves in competition with gasoline. Part of the problem is that they are charging for time, not for energy. If you pull up in a C-Max Energi, you will get about 3kWh for your dollar. However, if you have a Focus EV, you will get about 6kWh! Obviously the Energi driver is getting the raw deal here.

They seem to set the pricing based on the max power the unit can deliver. If they pro-rated based on charging rate, that Energi would only pay $1.50-$2 for a full charge, thus achieving price parity with gas.

If you look at the Volt instead (which outsells all Energis together by 2.5/1), it already is the same price as gasoline. A volt takes about 4 hours to charge enough for 40 miles. For $4 worth of gas, the Volt can also drive 40 miles.

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
    A few simple tips before you visit the dealership.
  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.