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Various plugs on electric, hybrid plug-in and hydrogen cars, shown at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show. (REUTERS)
Various plugs on electric, hybrid plug-in and hydrogen cars, shown at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show. (REUTERS)

The Green Highway

Plug-in problems: Why consumers aren’t buying electric vehicles Add to ...

Stories abound of angry electric vehicle owners getting all charged up because of problems charging their batteries.

This trouble exists only for owners of plug-in hybrids (PHEV) and all-electric vehicles (EV). The more common “hybrids” get their juice from regenerative braking and an internal combustion engine and are not designed to be plugged in.

The charging equipment for plug-ins comes at three levels:

Level One provides charging through a 120-volt alternating current (AC) plug. This is the simplest way to charge a battery if your car is parked at home overnight. But it’s slow. Depending on the battery, you only get 4 or 5 kilometres of driving from each hour of charging.

Level Two uses a 240-volt AC plug – like those used for a stove or dryer – a thousand bucks worth of charging equipment and a dedicated circuit of 20 to 100 amps. Level Two gives you 16 to 20 kilometres of range per hour of charging time. That’s still slow, yet this the standard at most public charging stations.

And then there’s the DC Fast Charger, which can add 100 kilometres of range to a PHEV or EV in 20 minutes. Nobody headed the cottage wants to stop for a five-hour Level Two recharge. They want their juice now so they can get back on the road quickly. The DC Fast Charger uses a different type of connector than the Level One and Two chargers.

So what’s the problem? Simple. The public charging stations.

As mentioned earlier, nearly all public chargers are Level Two. In Ontario, the Ministry of Transportation lists 208 public charging stations across the province and they’re all Level Two. That list contains equipment from 16 different manufacturers and includes more than 70 different models of chargers.

People are pulling up to charging stations only to discover they can’t use them. Why? Their car is incompatible with the particular charger at the site (more about that below), or someone is hogging the charger for hours or someone in a gas engine car has parked in the space, blocking the charger.

Let’s begin with the connector. Drivers are certain that when they pull up to the pump at any gas station, the hose nozzle is going to fit into the pipe behind the gas cap. Most Level One and Two connectors are the same – using a J1772 SAE inlet – but some auto makers are committed to a Mennekes (Type 2) connector. Any car with an incompatible connector can’t plug in and will likely need a tow truck.

It gets worse with the DC Fast Charger. Here we’re talking about the automotive equivalent of Betamax versus VHS – rival car companies have bought into two incompatible types of charging machines.

The Japanese CHAdeMO standard is supported by Nissan, Mitsubishi and Toyota. Meanwhile, the Society of Automotive Engineers’ (SAE) International J1772 Combo standard is backed by GM, Ford, Volkswagen and BMW.

Some see the SAE Combo standard as a plot against Nissan. The Nissan Leaf – which went on sale in 2010 – was the first modern EV. By the end of 2013, there will be 100,000 Leafs on the road globally, which makes CHAdeMO the de facto standard. It is not inconceivable that the introduction of the SAE Combo by competitors is part of a plot to slow Nissan down.

Until it’s as easy to “fill up” with electricity as it is with petroleum I won’t buy an electric. That’s not particularly green, but the free market has to demand open standards on electrics. Otherwise many consumers will take a pass.

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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