New Combo Plug For Electric Cars Slowly Comes to Europe

By · April 24, 2013

The Combo and Mennekes (Type 2) plugs compared

The Combo and Mennekes (Type 2) plugs compared. We thank Nicolas Chauveau from ABB for holding out the plugs.

The universal combined charging system for multiple levels of electric car charging was unveiled last May, with backing from American and German automakers. It creates a single connector for one phase AC, fast three phase AC, DC at home, and ultra fast DC at public stations. The announcement was impressive, but there didn't seem to be much progress for the rest of 2012. There were no cars using that plug, and there were no charging stations using it.

Chevrolet was the first to move when it unveiled the Spark EV with the Combo cord, and it remains the only manufacturer to do so. At the Geneva motor show last month, the Chevy Spark was the only EV with a Combo connector, but after meeting the people who have sold Combo charging stations to G.M. and Volkswagen, I can confirm the Combo is real, and that it's coming.

The Chevrolet Spark EV in Geneva

The Chevrolet Spark EV in Geneva

Some people find the thing quite big and cumbersome. They are right, but everybody should understand this connector has been designed by regulation. (The Tesla plug is praised for its slickness but there are several European countries where it will not be legal.) It's probably true that there are many stupid safety regulations out there, but the Combo plug has been designed to be legal everywhere, and that meant it had to be bulky, with a large man-sized handle.

A look at internal combustion cars shows what's coming to EVs. There are cars running on gas and diesel fuel in Europe, and everybody knows that diesel and gas engines sound and smell different, but that doesn't prevent some people from wrecking their car's fuel injection system because they've pumped in the wrong fuel.

A triple charger, with a Mennekes, a Chademo and a Combo plugs

A triple charger, with a Mennekes, a Chademo and a Combo plugs

The upcoming Volkswagen E-Up and BMW i3 should both use the Combo plug, but those manufacturers still have to make a formal commitment. Who knows if the Combo will be standard equipment? It's a bit like the actual Smart Electric Drive, which comes standard with a 3.3 kW charger, and the fast 22 kW charger is an option.

Another unanswered question is the maximum power allowed by the Combo plug. I've heard people talking about 50, 80, 90, or 120 kW. What is sure is that the plug has been designed to accept a current up to 170 kW. But there should be a substantial safety margin for street applications. No one knows how much it will be, simply because all the specifications detailing the Combo plug have not been fixed yet. It is expected they will be released in August, a month before the Frankfurt motor show where both the Volkswagen E-Up and the BMW will be unveiled in production form.

The leading Combo suppliers are ABB, DBT, EVTEC and IES.

It was a surprise to learn that the plug is still a work in progress—but few people imagined how much work is going on behind the scenes. The Combo plug is a smart unit with information exchanges between the car and the charging station. The ways those exchanges will be made must be very precisely prescribed by regulation, so that all EVSE suppliers and carmakers can build on them. Driver's privacy must also be taken in consideration.

These things take time. Meanwhile, the competition doesn't wait. There will be more than 600 CHAdeMO charging stations, and several thousands Type 2 (Mennekes) ones in Europe before the first Combo plug is installed.

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.