Charging, Part III: Level 3 (Times 3)

-See also Part I, plugs, and Part II, plug-in points

A common complaint with any battery product is “I’ll be stuck, waiting for it to charge.”  (Particularly with pure battery-electric vehicles, where you don’t have a backup engine.)  This was understandable years ago, and even last year.  No longer (at least, in certain regions).  What if I told you you could recharge your vehicle from empty, to 80% or so, in under 30 minutes?  No, really- most of a charge in the time it takes for a fast-food meal.  This is Level 3 charging, also known as DCQC (Direct Current Quick Charging) or just Quick Charging.

All batteries are DC devices, of a certain voltage, yet the power grid is AC.  It is then the onboard charger’s job to convert plug electricity to usable DC, at at least the voltage of the battery pack, and preferably a lot more.  What if you skipped that step?  What if the charger were stationary, already DC, and way higher voltage?  You’d charge straight into the pack, in 30 minutes, that’s what.  And with the charger outside and fixed, it can weigh whatever, and run cooler, too.  I’ve seen vehicle makers show prototype quick chargers since the mid-’90s.  Electric dragsters call it “dump charging” when they do it over and over again on race day.

There are drawbacks, of course.  Quick chargers run at over 400 volts, enough to jump across mediocre insulation.  Level 3 equipment is thus beefier and better-tested than Level 2, which is no slouch already.  With the heavy-duty grid connection, a quick charger is many thousands of dollars- not something you’d buy and install for just yourself.  Also, running high current at 400+ volts through anything causes heating; lithium battery packs have less conductivity than nickel chemistries, and get quite warm.  Nissan recommends Level 3 charging only once a day, to prevent heat damage to their cars and shortened battery lifetimes.

And there’s the big drawback, or three of them: there are three competing specifications for Level 3.  A Japanese standard, CHAdeMO, a U.S./German one (SAE J1772 Combo Plug), and one from Tesla A (“SuperCharger”).  In other words, a format war:

CHAdeMO, a Japanese play on “Charge and Move,” is backed by Nissan, Mitsubishi, Subaru, and the mega-utility TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Co.).  Right now, Toyota and Honda aren’t committing, but industry analysts figure it’s just a matter of time.  In the North American market, the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i/MiEV vehicles can charge from CHAdeMO installations.  These installations are primarily along the I-5 Green Highway (from Canada into California) plus Phoenix, AZ, the Tennessee Triangle (Nashville-Knoxville-Chattanooga), plus scattered locations elsewhere (mostly Houston/DFW and Chicagoland).
J1772 Combo Plug, like J1772, came from the Society of Automotive Engineers.  It is now backed by GM, Ford, Chrysler, the Audi group (Audi, Volkswagen, Porsche), Daimler, and BMW.  Fortunately, the Combo Plug is a J1772 plug with two extra pins, DC+ and DC-.  This should make rollout cheaper and faster.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t so far, since there are no Combo Plug cars or charging installations available yet.  Every day is another day CHAdeMO adds to its head start.
The Tesla SuperCharger is compatible with Tesla cars, from some locations already running.  Too bad Tesla is a startup company, with one low-production car, then a different one, and not much else.  The number of SuperCharger installations is effectively nil- maybe you lucked out and there’s one somewhere near you.  Even then, there aren’t enough to form a network, where many users from many starting points can try many itineraries via many SuperChargers.

Anyone feel like giving up, and watching a movie?  An old movie?  Format wars are bad for everyone: someone will get stuck with the losing format, of course.  But everyone else suffers from delayed and diluted rollouts, since investment capital is spread thin.  Three possible solutions:

-Customers will carry adapters, making formats moot.  Physically possible, but I don’t see it happening.  These would be serious adapters.
-One format wins.  If Toyota puts their market weight behind CHAdeMo, that might do it.  Personally, I don’t see them needing Level 3 much with their existing Prius offerings; they then have little reason to put real money in their chief competitors’ standard.  Heck, they’re dealing with Tesla.
-The customers throw their hands up, and sit it out.  Like Honda, so far.

Sigh, Sigh, Sigh.  If there’s any lithium lining in it for me, it’s that my motorcycle doesn’t really need this much juice.  As Brammo CEO Craig Bramscher noted: “The trickle charger for a car is a really fast charger for Brammo.”


8 thoughts on “Charging, Part III: Level 3 (Times 3)

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