Conference Raises Questions About Standards for Plug-in Cars

By · August 12, 2009

Plugging cars into the grid is quickly moving from concept to reality—and the auto and electric utility industries are frantically trying to make it a success. That’s the main theme of Plug-in 2009, running from Aug. 10 - 13 in Long Beach, Calif.

General Motors 240-volt Charging Unit

GM's wall-mounted 240-volt charger, which can charge the Chevrolet Volt in about three hours, meets the latest auto industry standards.

“It’s getting more and more real, and extremely tactical,” said Britta Gross, the General Motors point person on electric car infrastructure. GM is about 14 months away from the scheduled introduction of the Chevy Volt plug-in series hybrid. “This is crunch time,” said Gross.

GM is by no means alone. A growing list of plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars from a dozen or so carmakers is coming to market in the next couple years. Nissan’s all-electric car, the Nissan Leaf, will roll out in late 2010 roughly when the Chevy Volt is introduced.

The clock is racing toward these plug-in cars coming to neighborhood dealerships. As a result, carmakers, battery manufacturers, electric utility managers, and charging equipment producers are coming under increasing pressure to solve unresolved aspects of market introduction.

Getting Connected

The Society of Automotive Engineers has successfully instituted a standard for the cord and five-pin connector to recharge the vehicle with an outlet. “Back in the last generation of electric cars in the late 1990s, there were multiple charging interfaces,” said Gross. “There was not a common standard for the way automakers charged their vehicles. That’s been eliminated.”

The electric connections are established, but much of the customer experience is not yet determined. What kind of charging equipment will come with the car? Who will install it? How does the permitting process work? How long will it take? Is your home’s electric system capable of handling the charging requirements? What kind of service plans will be offered? Multiply these questions across 3,000 different electric utility companies, all with their own unique requirements.

J1772 Charging Plug

A plug using the J1772 five-pin plug-in car connection standard.

“We’re spending most of our time so the dealership experience is flawless,” said Michael Tinskey, Ford manager of vehicle electrification. Ford's goal is to make sure the customer is presented with a clear set of options at the point of purchase. Tinskey said that Ford is only about “initial to mid way” through that process. “We need to accelerate that. The industry needs to solve this problem. We don’t want our dealerships to become electricians.”

Ford plans to introduce a portfolio of electric and plug-in hybrid cars—including the Ford Focus EV—in the next three years, with the goal of having 25 percent of its fleet available as hybrid or electric cars in the next decade.

Felix Kramer, a leading advocate of plug-in cars, believes the auto industry needs to create a streamlined permitting and inspection process. "You don’t need five or six service trips out there by different people," said Kramer. "They want to compress that installation time from two months to ten days."

GM and other carmakers will use the connection standard—known as J1772—but have not settled on the exact charging equipment offered with vehicles. “We haven’t definitely decided which package is going to come with the vehicle. Whether it’s the 120-volt convenient port set or whether it’s the wall-mounted unit with 240 volts,” said Gross. “We’re going to want to understand that better in the next few months.”

GM is focusing on infrastructure issues for the home, rather than public charging at malls or workplaces, because public charging will not be ready by the end of 2010—and because the Chevy Volt has the capability to recharge depleted batteries using its on-board engine. Unlike plug-in hybrids, pure electric cars have a greater dependence on public charging and stations using 220V.

GM unveiled its 110v and 220v charging equipment at the Long Beach event. Nissan will soon unveil its equipment. Consumers interested in installing a home charging unit should be able to choose from equipment supplied by the carmaker, the utility company, or independent companies. But nobody knows at this stage exactly how it will play out.

By virtue of the J1772 standard, all connectors will be universal for future plug-in cars; they will not carry potentially dangerous current until the plug if fully engaged; they will be durable enough to survive getting driven over; and they prevent drivers from driving away while the car is plugged in.

Can We Talk?

The next generation of vehicles will not, however, be able to communicate with utilities—a critical step toward handling the added demand on the grid from plug-in cars. A number of speakers characterized the extra demand from each plug-in car as similar to the demands on the grid from an entire household.

"The communication standards are not required for electrification. They’re required for optimizing capacity on the grid and being smart about load management," said Tinskey. "But you don’t run into those problems until the volume [of plug-in cars] get much higher.”

Communications and data standards are evolving but do not yet exist—and most utility companies are not yet ready to exchange that information—but those standards will be essential for advanced metering capabilities, modifying electricity pricing based on time of day, and the ability for vehicles to return energy to the grid.

“As fast as automakers are working on new battery technology, the utility industry is working on the Smart Grid,” said Gross. “They’re growing. And we’re growing. The key is that we don’t make decisions too fast without understanding how these vehicles are going to be used.”

And even bigger questions required for planning for the plug-in car revolution remain unanswered: Exactly how many plug-in cars will hit US roads and when?

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