It’s more than a connector

First Ford, followed by General Motors (GM) and then Rivian. These automakers have publicly announced their adoption of the North American Charging Standard (NACS) connector, which currently only applies to Tesla vehicles, signaling a departure from the Combined Charging Standard (CCS) used in most electric vehicles (EVs) today becomes. Across the industry, the occasional conversation starter such as “How’s the weather where you are?” was quickly replaced by “Who’s going to announce next?” and “Is this a good thing or a bad thing?” These questions are answered with plenty of speculation surrounding the former and lively discussion in response to the latter, with perspectives including interoperability-focused organizations like the Charging Interface Initiative (CharIN).

Adding NACS to vehicles means more electric vehicles are compatible with Tesla’s Supercharger network. Both Ford and GM cited increased access to high-capacity charging stations as a key motivation for aligning with NACS. These statements are in line with the general industry consensus that the optimal EV driving experience depends on the accessibility, convenience and reliability of the charging infrastructure. However, the state of today’s public charging network, particularly the thousands of CCS-equipped charging stations that are not part of the Tesla network, leaves significant room for improvement.

So does the introduction of NACS mean that drivers of Ford, GM and Rivian electric vehicles will soon experience the same accessibility, convenience and reliability that Tesla drivers have come to expect? Not necessarily. Much of the media coverage and debate seems to confuse the NACS connector with the Supercharger network. And while the automakers’ announcements also touch on agreements and collaborations with Tesla that affect charging network access, there’s no certainty that a move to NACS will mean a Supercharger-like experience for all drivers.

The Supercharger network is the gold standard

Few would disagree with the claim that Tesla’s Supercharger network is superior to other manufacturers’ fast charging networks in terms of reliability and customer experience. It is well known that Tesla Superchargers are well-located (near major thoroughfares with amenities nearby), well-designed (redundancy with at least eight charging ports at each location), and well-maintained (clean and well-lit). Additionally, Tesla drivers simply pull up to a Supercharger booth, park the car, and then “plug in and go” without having to worry about session authorization or billing.

It’s important to remember that the Supercharger network’s stellar reputation rests solely on the combination of Tesla EVs with Tesla’s NACS-equipped fast-charging infrastructure. It is a closed ecosystem with no other device manufacturer or network provider involved. As others are added, it remains to be seen how much the Supercharger user experience will change. Will a Ford Mach-E equipped with a NACS adapter follow the same streamlined steps as a Tesla today? We do not know yet.

When is a standard standardized?

Tesla opened up its once-proprietary charging connector to the world in November 2022 by making design and specification files available to anyone interested. At the same time, the nickname NACS was introduced. Although the name includes “standard,” Tesla indicated that the company is “actively working with relevant standardization bodies to codify Tesla’s charging connector as a public standard.” From an electrical perspective, there are notable differences between NACS and CCS. For example, CCS has separate pins for supplying alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC), while NACS uses the same pin for both alternating current and direct current.

This is where CharIN comes in, a global association focused on advancing the electrification of transportation through interoperability and standardization. According to Michael Keller, CharIN Global Board Member, “there are now over 300 different vehicle types that are CCS compatible and more than 3,000 different CCS chargers from around 100 different charger manufacturers”, and many of these are part of CharIN’s 320 member organisations.

Amid the chorus of announcements, CharIN recently released a statement clarifying the organization’s position. In it, CharIN refers to NACS as a form factor or hardware design specification and emphasizes that NACS has not yet been verified by a standardization organization such as SAE or ISO. To facilitate an open standardization process, CharIN has raised its hand to convene a task force focused on NACS. This move is in response to member interest, but also to ensure safety protocols are in place in a multi-vendor environment, both on the vehicle and charging infrastructure side. “Safety comes first,” says Oleg Logvinov, Chairman of CharIN North America.

This isn’t CharIN’s first rodeo. A few years ago, the association set up a task force that led to the development of the Megawatt Charging System (MCS). This DC fast charging connector is intended for use in heavy-duty vehicles such as class 8 electric trucks with a power requirement of up to 3.75 megawatts and is based on CCS.

The first NACS task force meeting will be held in late June with representatives from more than 70 companies. The ultimate goal is to recommend that NACS be submitted to standardization bodies and eventually standardized. However, this process will take time, possibly the best part of a year or several years, and ultimately depends on consensus.

A standard represents consensus and provides a solid foundation for progress. Logvinov explains: “If we have a single standard that everyone adopts, then that forces healthy competition. This competition will focus on lower prices, better performance and superior features and capabilities.”

The market and time will tell

Today we have more questions than answers about how all of this will play out. The crystal ball for the American market is pretty unclear, but a look at the European market gives some insight into what could be.

In the European Union today there are hundreds of CPOs in 27 countries. Tesla is one of them and superchargers in Europe (V2 and V3) are compatible with CCS technology. But that wasn’t always the case. In November 2018, Electrek reported on Tesla’s intention to retrofit existing Superchargers with CCS, equip all new Model 3s with the CCS charging port, and offer a CCS adapter to extend Tesla drivers’ ability to charge third-party fast chargers. Keller explains: “The large number of CPOs in Europe built charging stations according to a common standard. There was no chance that a single company could do the same thing, it made no commercial sense. Tesla is now using CCS quite successfully and drivers are happy because they have so many chargers at their disposal.”

It is widely believed that the European EV market is several years ahead of the North American market, but perhaps not by much. Logvinov predicts, “I’m seeing an acceleration in the US market that I think will outpace what we have in Europe over the next 12 months.” We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Tesla for getting the market moving . Now we want to avoid creating confusion that delays the market.”

While there are many questions, some things are clear. For one thing, the transportation electrification industry has made incredible strides in a relatively short amount of time thanks to the work of automakers, charging providers, organizations like CharIN, and myriad other stakeholders. Another certainty is that better EV driver experiences and future market growth depend on effective partnerships, alliances and collaborations. It really is about so much more than just a connector.

Leave a Comment