Electric vehicle enthusiasts here in the U.S. are all a flutter over the news that China has announced several policies aimed at creating a market for electric vehicles.
They are also excited about the news that a Chinese businessman decided to build his own charging network when he couldn’t drive his Tesla Model S from Guangdong to Beijing because of a lack of charging stations.
The businessman, Mr. Zong, bought 20 220V charging stations from Tesla and installed them at businesses on the roads to Beijing. Now he can drive to Beijing in his new Tesla, it seems. Other Tesla owners can use the chargers too, he says.
Tesla thanks him for his contribution to China’s charging network. “We welcome any efforts from the private or public sector that promotes the widespread adoption of electric vehicles,” a Tesla spokesperson here in the U.S. wrote to me in an email.
This has little significance where widespread adoption of electric vehicles in China is concerned. It may promote more sales of Telsa vehicles in China. That’s about it. The stations can’t be adapted to charge other EVs, though the press has mistakenly reported that Mr. Zong will adapt them so other EVs can use them. Per the Tesla spokesperson: “Mr. Zong did not modify the wall connectors to fit other EV brands. He installed the Tesla ones for Tesla only.”
Even if Mr. Zong had wanted to modify the connectors to fit other EV brands, he couldn’t have. Well, perhaps he could, but they might only fit one other EV brand, in one city. That’s because, despite all the stories that China puts out (and the foreign press eats up) about producing and selling millions of EVs, and about all the charging standards it has issued, and the mandates to make local governments buy EVs and install charging posts, there are still no finalized standards in China for the connector configuration, the communication standard, or DC charging. Without those, China is creating a huge problem by urging widespread adoption of EVs. Instead of a nationwide industry, it is creating many local industries.
Here’s the lowdown on the state of charging standards in China:
First, the AC standard. That’s the slower charging method, and the one that will be used most widely. Chinese voltage is already 220V (versus the common 110V and less common 240V here in the U.S.) so plugging into a wall socket gets you Level 2 charging in China.
China in 2011 released an AC standard, GB/T 20234.2-2011. GB stands for “Guobiao” or “national standard.” T stands for “tuijian,” or “recommended.” How does that really translate? China hasn’t settled on a final standard yet. The Tesla spokesperson put it well. She wrote: “It lacks definition of some important parameters, resulting in the incompatibility of EV products with different brands and charging facilities in different cities. So it is still a voluntary standard, not mandatory.”
The central government is pushing automakers in China to produce EVs. People won’t buy them without a charging network. So localities come up with their own charging station parameters including connectors and communication. Local automakers produce EVs that can use those charging stations but can’t safely charge anywhere else.
And what about that mandates that 30% of local government fleet purchases must be EVs? And that that 30% of their purchases be made from manufacturers outside their area? (Which are not new, by the way. Both were included in the policy issued in September, 2013). Well, the EVs from outside the area won’t be able to charge on the local stations.
I talked with my old friend David Reeck, who recently retired from his post as Manager of Electrification Strategy for GM China, about the state of standards in China’s EV world. This is a man who spent years trying to rationalize China’s charging standards. Reeck is living in Oregon now, working as a consultant. He was not optimistic. “I would say by the end of the year China will realize it has really messed up,” he said.
He is especially pessimistic about the DC standards, which are the most contentious and thus the most difficult to decide. “From end of this year until about 2016 China won’t have a DC standard formalized,” said Reeck. China has a DC connector plug that it is promoting. But that lacks safety features that the European, U.S., and Japanese standards include. Also, the male and female parts on the Chinese DC connector are reversed, added Reeck.
There is disagreement among the Chinese about this standard, he says. Some figure it is safe for passenger vehicles — though perhaps not for trucks — and should be released. Others think it better to wait for a standard that works for all kinds of vehicles.
This is an argument that has been going on a long time. I attended the global EVS25 electric vehicle conference in Shenzhen in 2010 and executives from the U.S. Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE) told me at that time of their safety concerns regarding the Chinese plug standard. SAE is now working with China’s CATARC on a DC standard. But SAE declined to comment when I asked about the safety issue.
What do all these internecine battles mean for the industry? Let’s go back to Mr. Zong and his Tesla charging network. No, let’s drop Mr. Zong and just consider Tesla’s attempt to build a charging network in China. Remember, this is a company that has charging stations that only work with its vehicles. But the issues Tesla faces are those that the whole industry faces.
Tesla’s 220V charging stations in China have connectors that are based on the EU standard, which shares a communication standard with J1772, the U.S. standard. Those two are therefore compatible even if the connectors aren’t exactly the same.
When China does finalize the AC charging standard, “Tesla Model S in China will be compatible with the new GB AC standard,” said Tesla. That means all the charging stations that are installed up until then probably won’t work with future Tesla vehicles.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Europe are moving ahead. In October of 2012, they unveiled a combined AC DC plug standard. It was created through collaboration between engineers in the U.S. and in Europe. “This new standard reflects the many hours that top industry experts from around the world worked to achieve the best charging solution – a solution that helps vehicle electrification technology move forward.” Gery Kissel, the combo plug Task Force Chairman, said. That didn’t include Chinese engineers, it seems. Or if it did, China didn’t collaborate. No, it wants to create its own DC standard.
Foreign automakers in China haven’t been sitting idly by while EV charging standards moved forward in the rest of the world. A group of foreign automakers – collectively known as the Charging Interface Initiative Asia – that includes BMW, Volkswagen Group, Daimler, Ford, and General Motors has been encouraging China to adopt a combined plug standard similar to that just adopted by Europe and the U.S..
So far China insists it wants its own standard. But in 2015, the Germans will “aggressively” demonstrate a combined China GB standard plug, says Reeck. Still, he figures China won’t have a DC standard formalized until 2016. And whether or not that will be compatible with international standards remains to be seen.