The world is filled with “network effects” (Wikipedia article). Network effects are typically positive, resulting in a given user deriving more value from a product as more users join the same network. If more and more users purchase VHS videocassette players, this prompts more film distributors to publish movies in VHS format. This in turn prompts more users to purchase VHS videocassette players, and so on, leading perhaps to the demise of the Betamax format for videocassettes. Today’s announcement that General Motors has agreed to partner with the Tesla supercharging network in the US comes on the heels of Ford’s announcement a couple of weeks ago that it had agreed to partner with the Tesla supercharging network in the US. What factors probably contributed to these recent developments? What does this mean for the future of the non-Tesla standards for EV chargers in the US?
Let’s start by trying to guess what factors probably contributed to these recent moves by Ford and GM. Start with the J-plug. The J-plug is limited to about 11½ kilowatts of charging power. This is ideal for home charging. The J-plug is a universal donor, like somebody who has O-negative blood. Anybody, no matter what their blood type, can receive O-negative blood. Every non-Tesla EV has a port that can receive a J-plug directly. The Tesla cars use a small and relatively inexpensive adapter to permit the J-plug to connect to the Tesla charging port. When somebody is charging at home, they can typically allow the charging activity to proceed overnight, while people are sleeping. If the desired amount of charging takes four or six or eight hours, this may not be a problem at all.
A J-plug is also perfect for an airport parking spot. If somebody is going to leave their car at an airport for a couple of days, then it absolutely does not matter how slow the charger is, it will nonetheless manage to charge up the car during those couple of days.
But let’s suppose you are on a cross-country drive. 11½ kW won’t cut it. To satisfy ordinary car-owner expectations, the EV charging process for someone on a cross-country drive needs to go roughly as fast as the process of pumping gasoline into an ICE (internal combustion engine) car. Fifteen minutes or thirty minutes of charging is surely within the tolerance of many cross-country drivers, especially when one considers that the driver might be able to make good use of that time, for example using a bathroom or getting some food or a beverage. It is commonplace for a driver charging at a Tesla supercharging station to accomplish 75 kW or 150 kW or even 350 kW of charging power.
Within the past year or so, several service providers have deployed CCS1 charging stations across the US. Many of these stations are able to charge at 150 kW and some are able to charge at 350 kW.
So as a general matter J-plugs are of no help for most cross-country drives. What remains if you eliminate the J-plug are the other two kinds of plug, namely CCS1 and NACS (Tesla). But what is this like for the ordinary driver, using CCS1 chargers on the one hand or NACS chargers on the other hand?
The plug and cable. CCS1 plugs are strikingly big and heavy and awkward. The cord is stiff. I have used CCS1 charging stations to charge my Tesla car. Each time, I had no choice but to use two hands to try to wrangle the CCS1 plug into place. Lining it up with the charging port is not easy, but even when it is lined up, the next step is to force it into place in the charging port, and this is also not easy.
In contrast the NACS plug is smaller and not nearly as heavy. If you are at a V2 Tesla charger the cord is thick and stiff, but most drivers would find that they would not have to use two hands to wrangle the NACS plug into the charging port. The most recently installed Tesla superchargers are V3, and the cord is not as thick and it is not as stiff. The NACS plug at a V3 station is, by comparison, easy to wrangle into place.
Being absolutely sure you can find a charger in a particular geographic area when you desperately need one. By now in 2023 pretty much everybody who thinks about electric cars has come to realize that if your car happens to be a Tesla car, you absolutely do not need to worry about being unable to find a charger when you need it. Yes if you really work at it, going very far away from all interstate highways, you can find remote places where there is no Tesla supercharger. But in general, for nearly all long-distance trips that a person might plan, there will always be Tesla supercharging stations along the way. The spacing from one station to the next will be close enough that you will never get close to using up your battery between charges. The spacing from one Tesla station to the next is nowadays usually so close that you could drive past every other station without risking running down the EV battery.
In contrast, for those who drive a non-Tesla car, meaning that your only fast charging option is CCS1 chargers, it is easy to find yourself wondering whether you will be able to find a charging station when you need it. If you are headed west from Grand Junction, Colorado on I-70 with a fully charged (non-Tesla) EV, there is a single point of failure ahead of you. There is one non-Tesla charging station in Green River, Utah, and if it were to be broken when you get there, you are absolutely guaranteed to be stranded with an empty battery. (The CCS1 charging station in Green River is provided by Electrify America.) This EA station in Green River was broken for two days in March of 2023. Drivers of non-Tesla cars were reduced to desperate measures, such as renting a spot in a campground so as to gain access to a NEMA 14-50 receptacle to permit use of a Level 2 travel charger for an overnight charge.
Being pretty sure that when you get to the charging station, you will find one of the charging plugs to be available now or soon. The EA CCS1 charging station in Green River, Utah has only four charging plugs. In recent months I have observed that charging station four different times, and each time there were at least two cars waiting for their turn because all four charging positions were occupied.
In contrast, there are Tesla supercharging stations in the US with 24 or 48 or even one hundred charging plugs. And the Tesla company is constantly constructing new supercharging stations, and is constantly adding charging positions to existing supercharging stations. In one recent cross-country drive I had to charge six times in two days (each time at a Tesla supercharging station), and three of those six charging stations had construction work in progress to add more charging positions.
It would be inaccurate, however, to say that drivers never have to wait to charge up their cars at Tesla supercharging stations. I recently arrived at an 8-position supercharging station in Saint George, Utah and found myself to be third in line behind two others who were already waiting for a chance to use one of the eight positions that were all occupied. Some drivers report finding themselves in waiting lines to use much larger Tesla charging stations with all 24 or all 36 charging positions already in use.
But the Tesla company seems relentless in its efforts to monitor for instances of all positions being in use in a particular station, and then spending whatever money is needed to add another station nearby, or to add charging positions at that popular charging station.
Risk of arriving at a charging station and finding that it does not work. You can click around on the internet and find myriad reports of drivers arriving at charging stations and finding that a charging plug does not work.
As I mentioned above, the EA station in Green River, Utah, which had a mere four charging positions, was entirely out of service for two days in March of 2023. This left a gap along Interstate 70 that was so long that it exceeded the driving range of almost all EVs.
In contrast it is uncommon for any charging position at any Tesla supercharging station to be broken. When this does happen, it is quite rare for even 24 hours to pass before it is restored to service. Most drivers of Tesla cars would report, if asked, that they have never even once encountered a Tesla supercharging station where all charging positions were out of service. Most would also report that they have never heard of any other driver of a Tesla car encountering such a thing.
Fuss and bother to get the charging position working. For drivers of Tesla cars, there is no fuss or bother. You plug in the car and some automatic data communication between the car and the charger happens, and that’s it. No need to open an app on a smart phone, or swipe a credit card, or tap on a kiosk touch screen.
For non-Tesla chargers, the payment arrangements vary greatly across service providers. It is sometimes a fiddly process to get the charging to start.
With all of this background discussion, we can turn to the decisions made by Ford and General Motors in recent days. Each company has made an agreement with Tesla to be able to use the Tesla charging network. Starting in a year or so, newly manufactured Ford and GM cars will have an NACS charging port in the left rear corner of the car, just as Tesla cars do now.
In the short term this will doubtless be very annoying to some drivers of Tesla cars, since it will sometimes mean that one arrives at a Tesla supercharging station and finds all charging positions to be occupied, with some of the cars being non-Tesla cars. But I think it is safe to assume that Tesla will continue adding charging positions, and will continue constructing new supercharger locations, to keep up with demand.
On a practical level, the buyer of a Ford or GM car that has the NACS port at the left rear corner will be free of range anxiety. The buyer will be able to fearlessly embark on a cross-country drive, just as the drivers of Tesla cars do.
Now we can bring the discussion back to “network effects”. By now there are three car makers (Tesla, Ford, and GM) that are committed to the NACS standard. This will lead to more NACS charging stations being constructed. This will in turn tempt additional car makers to consider committing to the NACS standard.
I predict that GM will not be the last US EV maker to switch to the NACS standard. I predict that one by one, almost all of the US EV makers will switch to the NACS standard. I predict that the last non-Tesla car maker to switch to NACS will be Volkswagen, for the simple reason that it is Volkswagen that built out the EA charging network (which is CCS1).
In the short term there will be big annoyances as drivers of Ford EVs and GM EVs try to make use of Tesla charging stations. For virtually all Ford EVs and GM EVs, the charging port is in completely a wrong place for plugging in at a Tesla station. (The charging port is typically on the front face of the car or is on the left side, just ahead of the driver’s door.) This will lead to drivers of Ford EVs and GM EVs having to park sideways and occupying two parking spaces (tying up two charging positions). It will also lead to situations where a driver pulls into a parking space and connects to a charging plug that was intended to serve a car located in the parking space to the left. The practical result is the same — one car tying up two charging positions. Hopefully in coming weeks and months, extension cord adapters will become available that will permit parking the non-Tesla car in exactly the same orientation as a Tesla car.