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.

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.