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Tesla's EV Charger Is Becoming an Industry Standard. But Its Rival Still Has Key Backing

Dan Avery

Jul 1, 2023

Tesla made its connector technology available to other carmakers last year. But will the tech overtake the system favored by the Biden administration?

More than a century after Nikola Tesla won the war of the currents, the electric-car company that bears his name is gaining traction in the EV charging wars. 


On Tuesday, Volvo announced that it's adopting Tesla's North American Charging Standard connector technology. New Volvo EVs will come with NACS plugs starting in 2025, and adapters for current models will be available in the first half of next year.


The same day, a key standards organization reported it was fast-tracking a review of NACS as a potential industry standard.


Volvo became the first foreign auto manufacturer to embrace Tesla's charging technology, but the company's move followed similar news from Ford, GM and Rivian in just the past four weeks. 


And by Thursday, another Swedish carmaker, Polestar, had revealed that its EVs would also come with NACS plugs beginning in 2025.


It was a banner week for Tesla, long the dominant force in EVs, and the news is coming at a good time: With sales expected to surpass 1 million vehicles this year for the first time ever, interest in EVs is at an all-time high.


Prices are coming down, thanks to an eased supply chain and the new $7,500 EV tax credit, and the Biden administration's pledge of $51 million for 500,000 public charging ports should go far to alleviate range anxiety.


But all those drivers need to plug in once they find a charging station, and NACS isn't the only standard on the market.

A tale of two connections


Aside from Teslas, all EVs on the road in the US today have Combined Charging System (CCS) plugs, devised by the Charging Interface Initiative (CharIN), a consortium of European automakers. 


The Biden administration has been lobbying for CCS connections to be the industry go-to, and requires stations that receive federal funding to include them. 

Using a connection that doesn't pair with your charging port requires a converter, and sometimes additional hardware. But convenience isn't the only issue: In the long run, experts say, the cost of maintaining two industry standards will be passed along to consumers.   


Tesla introduced NACS technology in 2012 and made it available to other manufacturers last year.


While the technologies behind CCS and NACS plugs are quite similar, NACS connectors have no moving parts and, according to Tesla, are twice as powerful at half the size of CCS plugs.


"The physical connector is quite different," said Arcardy Sosinov, founder and CEO of charging technology firm Freewire. "NACS is lighter, smaller and easier to handle." 


The federal government and EV charging


Biden has made electrifying America's roads a priority in his first term. The $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill he signed in 2021 set aside billions to expedite the adoption of electric cars.


In May, the White House announced the creation of the National Charging Experience Consortium, tasked with overseeing payment processing, data sharing and, yes, vehicle-charger communication


"The EV revolution is well underway, and this funding will help to ensure that every American can access the benefits and count on a reliable EV charging network across the country," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement.


But having two competing standards is a real obstacle to achieving that goal, Sosinov said. And though the days of the CCS connector may be numbered, he added, it'll be some time before the plug disappears.


"There's a lot of cars on the road right now with CCS plugs. And all the EVs that will come out in the next year," Sosinov told CNET. "That's more than a million automobiles."

And despite NACS gains, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law still requires CCS connectors at charging stations that receive federal funding.


There are more than 19,000 Tesla Supercharger ports in the US, spread across nearly 1,800 stations. Earlier this year, Tesla started making roughly 12,000 spots available to non-Tesla EVs that have NACS connections or adapters.


Most of the 54,000 public charging stations in the US are slower Level 2 chargers, which can take up to eight hours to fully recharge a battery. Using direct current fast-charging, a Supercharger can fully recharge a vehicle's battery in under an hour. 


Volvo CEO Jim Rowan called the lack of a convenient, universal charging infrastructure a "major inhibitor" to the growth of electric vehicles in the US.


"Today, with this agreement, we're taking a major step to remove this threshold for Volvo drivers," Rowan said in a statement.


Volvo previously announced plans to stop making internal combustion engine vehicles by 2030. It currently produces two EVs, the XC40 and C40 Recharge, and it announced the addition of the EX30 and EX90 for next year.


Toward an EV charging industry standard


Previously known as the Society of Automotive Engineers, SAE International is the organization fast-tracking NACS as a potential industry standard.

It works with government agencies to establish interoperability and performance protocols. (Despite its moniker, Tesla's North American Charging Standard hasn't been vetted by any governing body.)


"Standardizing the NACS connector will provide certainty, expanded choice, reliability and convenience to manufacturers and suppliers and, most of all, increase access to charging for consumers," Frank Menchaca, president of Sustainable Mobility Solutions, a branch of SAE's parent company, said in a statement.


Tesla no longer operates a public relations department and didn't respond to a request for comment.


SAE International said it hopes to have a standard configuration within the next six months that addresses everything from charging speeds and connections to reliability and cybersecurity, the Associated Press reported.


CharIN can't be thrilled by NACS' recent advances.

"Early, unconsolidated announcements of changes create uncertainty in the industry and lead to investment obstacles," CharIN said in a June 12 statement that called CCS "the global standard" for charging technology.

Unlike NACS, it added, its version "is future-proofed to support many other use cases beyond public DC fast charging." 

CharIN didn't respond to a request for comment. But in its statement, it acknowledged that, with so many carmakers adopting it, NACS needs to be vetted by standards bodies like SAE International.

"Customers and the EV industry need trustworthy open charging standards to ensure confidence in the availability, reliability, safety, and adaptability of the standard over time."

The road ahead

The competition is only heating up, as Electrify America, the largest direct current fast-charging network in the US, announced Thursday that it's working to add NACS connections to all its stations by 2025.  


And earlier this month, both Texas and Washington state indicated they planned to require charging companies to offer NACS in addition to CCS connectors if they want in on contracts to electrify state highways.


In Texas, each DC Fast Charge port will have one CCS connector and one NACS connector.

"The Texas Department of Transportation is leading the way in developing a plan to ensure all Texans have access to EV infrastructure," agency spokesperson Julien Devereux told CNET. "Having the most common connectors available at each charging station will provide more options for EV drivers."


The growing enthusiasm for NACS is good news for both the industry and consumers, Sosinov said, but the involvement of SAE isn't.


"Once a standards body gets involved, all the [manufacturers] are going to ask for their own considerations," he said. "There will be too many cooks in the kitchen and it will only dilute the next connector and plug." 

It will also add to costs, Sosinov said.


"You have two plugs, two chargers, two standards," he said. "My costs to get certification will be higher, which will be borne by people who buy my chargers -- the convenience stores, gas stations and restaurants. And they'll pass it on to the consumer."


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