Ultra-fast charging networks to challenge Tesla Superchargers

Tucumcari Supercharger in New Mexico [Credit: Marcos]

European automakers are about to make a major commitment to developing an ultra-fast charging network that can rival that of Tesla’s Supercharger network. Reuters reports that Daimler, BMW, Volkswagen and American automaker, Ford, plan to build 400 ultra-fast charging stations in Europe that will be capable of power levels triple that of Tesla’s existing fast-charging Supercharger stations.

Fast chargers in Europe

At the moment, there are more than 72,000 public chargers in Europe but only 5,800 of those are what the International Energy Agency calls “fast” chargers, which means they have 43 kW of power or more. By contrast, a Tesla Supercharger operates at between 120 and 135 kW.

While Tesla has been busy investing in the global expansion of its charging infrastructure, other major car companies have been waiting on the sidelines for private companies or governments to build the infrastructure needed to power their electric car models. Some allege this foot dragging is proof that mainstream car companies are really not all that interested in building electric cars in the first place.

Diesel cheating changes everything

The Volkswagen  diesel cheating scandal that broke in September of 2015 changed that calculus, however. In the aftermath, it emerged that the only difference between Volkswagen and most other manufacturers was that it got caught. Cheating was rampant throughout the industry. Suddenly, the car companies had to face the fact that “clean diesel” technology was a false hope and that they needed another strategy to meet the looming European Union emissions standards.

Automakers respond

Volkswagen is seeking to dig itself out of the hole it dug for itself by repositioning itself as a maker of primarily electric cars. Now it is partnering with BMW, Mercedes Benz, and Ford to devise and construct a network of ultra-fast charging stations.

The goal is to install 350 kW charging stations throughout Europe, using the CCS charging standard. Each station is said to approximately €200,000 each. Interestingly, Tesla is also a member of the CCS consortium.

The car makers are partnering with experts from the European power and engineering industry. Germany companies Innogy, E.ON and Siemens are involved as well as Portugal’s Efacec. “This is a structured and concerted effort across sectors to tackle the infrastructure issue in a real way,” a source tells Reuters.

ChargePoint weighs in

At the recent CES 2017 show, ChargePoint unveiled its own vision of the future — Express Plus, a modular and scalable system of chargers with up to 400 kW of power. The ChargePoint system is built around one common component — a charging blade with 31 kW of power. Each charging station can have one or two blades installed. The chargers can network together to boost power to any unit in use or they can be linked to a Power Cube, a separate component containing 16 blades with a total of 496 kW of power.

Because it is scalable, the ChargePoint system can expand to provide more power for charging electric vehicles as demand increases. This could one day supply the needs of heavy duty electric buses and tractor trailers.

Elon hints of big things to come

As the market for electric cars grows, traditional car makers are going to find it easier to catch up with Tesla, said Graham Evans, automotive analyst at IHS Markit. “Tesla doesn’t really have anyone to answer to, they are independent,” he said. “(But) I think that further out the big (automakers) are in a better position to capitalize because of their more extensive resources.”

Navigant Research analyst Lisa Jerram said the number of players in the emerging EV fast charging market to build ultra-fast charging stations makes it difficult to call out a winner yet. “Development is underway on these chargers so there isn’t a leader at this point,” she notes.

Recently, Elon Musk scoffed at the suggestion that the charging network the European companies are working on will be a big deal. He tweeted that 350 kW of power was merely a “children’s toy,” hinting that Tesla has much bolder goals.

As usual, Tesla will likely remain 3 moves ahead of the industry.

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