Electric-Car Fast Chargers

The Name Game

Confusion about quick charging begins with uncertainty about names and labels for different types of charging.

The slowest form of electric car charging at 120 volts is called Level 1. And mid-range 240-volt charging is called Level 2. But ultrafast charging that can deliver juice around 40-60 kW is not called Level 3, as you might expect. According to official terminology from the Society of Automotive Engineering, it’s called DC Quick Charging or DC Fast Charging—sometimes abbreviated as DCQC. The decision to not use the term Level 3, and to call it "quick charging" instead makes some sense for two reasons:

  • First, in Level 1 and Level 2 charging, common alternating current (AC) electricity is fed to the car, where it is converted by an on-board charger to direct current (DC) before going to the battery pack, where the energy is stored. In DC quick charging, the charger is located outside the vehicle. This large piece of equipment handles the AC-to-DC conversion and supplies DC electricity to the battery at a much higher rate.
  • Second, while all electric cars can accept the first two levels of charging, only EVs that carry special quick charging equipment can take advantage of those walloping big jolts of electric fuel. Quick charging is a different animal than Level 1 and Level 2.

How Quick Is Quick?

On a technical basis, you could look at voltage as an indication of charging speed. Each level of charging essentially doubles the voltage. Jumping from Level 1 to Level 2 means an increase from 120 volts to 240 volts. Likewise, quick charging doubles voltage once again to 480 volts, which is often rounded off to 500.

A more useful metric is the number of miles of range that are added for every hour of charging. Before firing off an angry email, please know that these numbers represent a general rule of thumb rather than any guarantee. With Level 1 120-volt charging, you can add about 4 miles of range every hour. That’s slow, just the way a car that drives 4 miles per hour is barely moving. Level 2 240-volt charging adds around 25 miles of range in an hour. That’s a better speed, just the way traveling 25 mph in a car is good for many city situations.

But quick charging theoretically increases things to Autobahn speed: 100 miles, or more, of added range per hour. In practice, due to many factors, the speed of quick charging does not run at a steady pace.

A completely empty battery charges faster than one with some amount of stored energy. An empty battery is like a dry sponge that thirstily soaks up water. But as a battery fills up, it becomes harder to push more electrons into an already crowded space. The first few minutes of a quick charge—as the battery goes from zero state-of-charge (SOC) to one-quarter full can be twice as fast as the same exact battery, only a little while later, going from 90 percent SOC to 100 percent full.

The last electrons can be so painfully slow that most people just talk about going from empty to 80 percent capacity—usually in about 30 minutes for an electric car like the Nissan LEAF that has a range of about 80 miles from its 24-kWh battery pack. A Tesla Model S, with its monster 60- or 85-kWh battery, can charge at a faster rate for a longer period of time, partly because it takes a lot longer for it to reach that slow-down period when the battery pack starts to get full.

Types of Quick Chargers

You might assume that all quick chargers work with all modern electric cars, just like all gas pumps work with all gas-powered vehicles. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. In the United States, there are three primary types of quick chargers: CHAdeMO, SAE Combo, and Tesla Superchargers. All essentially perform the same task of pumping a maximum amount of electricity, but which quick charger type you can use depends on your vehicle.

Many observers equate the existence of different quick charging protocols to the battle between VHS and Betamax for video technology dominance. (For the record, VHS won the battle, but lost the war to DVDs, which are now getting beat by streaming video.) The comparison falls short because quick charging equipment has the potential to support multiple protocols in a single charging unit with minimal duplication of components. For better or worse, multiple EV quick charging protocols will likely co-exist, rather than there being a single global standard (which would have been nice). As a result, many public quick charging stations will eventually have multiple connectors.

We expect debates about the superiority of one protocol versus another to continue ad nauseum—based on differing views about the preferred size of the connector, ease of use, the best grid-to-car communications system, or how different levels of charging are packaged. Don’t worry too much about those debates. The key for everyday EV drivers wanting a quick charge is to know what kind of DCQC port your car uses—and, in the case of certain vehicles like the Nissan LEAF, to make sure you choose that option when purchasing your vehicle.

When planning a trip to a quick charge station, use PlugShare to verify that the desired charging station has the protocol that matches your vehicle. PlugShare lets you filter stations by plug type and, if you specify your vehicle in your account profile, can automatically display only compatible stations. If the charging station has multiple cords for different protocols, then make sure to initiate a charge with the correct one.

The Big Three

CHAdeMO (lower) and SAE CCS (upper) fast charging connectors.

CHAdeMO

This trade name is an abbreviation for “CHArge de Move” or “charge for moving.” The CHAdeMO association—a partnership between Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Fuji Heavy Industries and the Tokyo Electric Power Company—was established in March 2010. Not surprisingly, CHAdeMO cords are compatible with electric vehicles made by Nissan and Mitsubishi. As of July 2014, there are more than 600 CHAdeMO charging stations in the United States, more than 1, 000 in Europe, and nearly 2, 000 in Japan. Current CHAdeMO stations typically provide 40-60 kW (tapering off as the battery fills up) and the specification has a maximum power output of 100 kW.

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