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Tesla's EV Charger Is on Track to Be the Industry Standard. But the Road Ahead Is Bumpy

Dan Avery

Jul 4, 2023

Tesla's NACS plug is overtaking the competition. Will EV drivers benefit?

Kentucky on Friday started requiring charging companies to include Tesla's North American Charging Standard connectors if they wanted in on federally funded contracts to electrify state highways.

Kentucky is the first state to officially mandate NACS plugs, but both Texas and Washington state indicated earlier this month that they intend to issue a similar demand.

"Having the most common connectors available at each charging station will provide more options for EV drivers," Texas Department of Transportation spokesperson Julien Devereux told CNET.

Tesla's once-proprietary charging architecture has been on something of a winning streak: Also last week, two more automakers announced they would switch to NACS, and a key standards organization said it's fast-tracking the plug as a potential industry standard.

Electrify America, the largest direct current fast-charging network in the US, announced on Thursday that it would add NACS connections to all of its stations by 2025.   

The news is coming at a good time for the industry: With sales expected to surpass 1 million vehicles this year for the first time, interest in EVs is at an all-time high.

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

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

The Biden administration has lobbied for CCS connections to be the industry go-to, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law still requires CCS plugs at charging stations receiving federal funding. (In Texas, each DC fast-charging port will have one CCS connector and one NACS connector. )

Read on: How to Charge Your Non-Tesla EV at a Supercharger 

Using a connection that doesn't pair with your car 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 borne by consumers.   

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

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

Biden has made electrifying America's roads a priority in his first term. The bipartisan infrastructure bill he signed in 2021 set aside $5 billion to help states build a robust EV charging infrastructure.

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 competing standards is a real obstacle to achieving that goal, Sosinov said. And while NACS is clearly taking the lead, he added, it'll be at least several years before CCS 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."

Earlier this year, Tesla started allowing non-Tesla EVs to access 12,000 of its more than 19,000 Superchargers, which use DC fast charging and can fully top off a battery in under an hour.

Last week, Volvo and Polestar joined Ford, GM and  Rivian in using NACS connectors in their EVs by 2025.

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

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

NACS is also getting a welcoming nod from SAE International, which works with government agencies to establish interoperability and performance protocols in the transportation sector. 

Last week, the organization announced it was expediting a review of Tesla's charger as a potential industry standard. (Despite its moniker, the North American Charging Standard hasn't been vetted by any governing body.) 

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

"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, which no longer operates a public relations department, did not respond to a request for comment.

CharIN also didn't respond to an inquiry, but in a June 12 statement it did acknowledge that NACS needs to be reviewed by standards bodies, given how many stakeholders are adopting it.

"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 group said.

In the same statement, though, CharIN reiterated that CCS is "the global standard" for charging technology. And, unlike NACS, it added, CCS "is future-proofed to support many other use cases beyond public DC fast charging." 

CharIN isn't the only interested party trying to slow the advance of NACS, though. In a letter to the Texas Transportation Commission, a group of EV charging companies called the state's plan for NACS connections "premature."

"Time is needed to properly standardize, test, and certify the safety and interoperability of Tesla connectors across the industry," said the group, which included charging station operator ChargePoint and manufacturer ABB, Reuters reported.

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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