For years now, we and many others have been saying that no company can compete with Tesla in the electric car market until they offer a good network of superfast charging stations for their drivers. One year ago, there was no solid information anything like this was in the plans, but one had to think it was.
In November, we got news of a coalition of automakers working together on superfast in Europe (or, at least, committing to do so). In December, EVgo announced it was starting to develop such stations in the US, and ChargePoint basically announced the same in January. But it still seems that every automaker is years behind Tesla in this realm. That said, recent news indicates that Nissan may be the first to try to really compete … and maybe others aren’t too far behind the Japanese powerhouse.
First of all, I’ll explain a few technical matters in super human terms in case this is a new topic for you:
◊ “Level 2 charging,” which is basically “slow” charging (but not super-slow “trickle” charging from a normal electricity outlet), is the kind of charging you can do at home, work, a shopping center, or anywhere else with a Level 2 charging station (EVSE). Depending on the car’s technology, this could mean anything from 6.6 kW, which amounts to ~20–25 miles of range added per hour, to 20 kW, which amounts to ~55–60 miles added per hour. (Well, only Tesla’s vehicles and the Renault Zoe can make the jump from a rare max of 10 kW, ~30 miles per hour, to ~20 kW.) For more details on different models’ charging capabilities and Level 2 charging, check this out.
◊ What is commonly considered “fast charging” or “DC fast charging” or “Level 3 charging” is basically marketed as 50 kW charging, but many stations are actually 25 kW (which you can see is getting down to Tesla’s max Level 2 charging). In theory, this “fast charging” can get much faster, but non-Tesla electric cars haven’t historically been designed to charge with more power than 50 kW. The Chevy Bolt can hit a max of 80 kW if it can find a charging station that goes above 50 kW … but it can’t find one of those today, and it’d be lucky to even find a 50 kW charging station. 50 kW amounts to adding approximately 75–100 miles per 30 minutes of charging, which sounds pretty good … until you map out what that would mean on a long road trip. Meanwhile, 25 kW doesn’t seem like it should be considered fast charging at all. I often charge using a 22 kW Mennekes plug here in Europe. That’s super convenient compared to trickle charging, but it is certainly not something I’d classify as fast charging in the 21st century. (Again, check out this “EV Charging 101” article for more details.)
◊ What I call “superfast charging” is sometimes called “high-power charging.” It basically amounts to Tesla’s Supercharging option or something faster. Tesla’s Supercharging output is a max of 120 kW according to its website (though, it seems to have the potential to go higher in some locations). That means adding ~170 miles of range in ~30 minutes, according to Tesla. I can say from a couple of recent long-distance trips that this is good enough for me but would probably still irritate some less patient, less flexible, and less adventurous humans (I know a few who probably wouldn’t deal well with it). I would also highlight that it charges much faster when the battery is lower but slows down more and more when you get closer to 100% charge (which is the same story with all batteries). Tesla’s estimate of up to 170 miles in 30 minutes seems based on a realistic scenario from my experiences so far. (Comparing the Supercharging rates in the pictures below, note that 562 km = 349 miles and 109 km = 68 miles.)
With that background out of the way, the basic point is: If you want an electric car to be practical for long-distance travel, it has to have significant range (probably 200 miles or more) and have access to a broad, reliable, accessible, and well dispersed superfast charging network. Here’s Tesla’s current Supercharging network in the US and Europe as the only living example of such a network:
Tesla’s website says that right now there are 861 Supercharger stations with 5,655 Superchargers across the world. Number of non-Tesla superfast charging stations? Probably fewer than 5.
The point is: even if an automaker has a superfast charging plan, it is leaving Tesla with a massive, humongous, ludicrous head start in this space, which Tesla keeps growing. But does anyone have a plan for somehow catching up?
The news that triggered this is that Nissan has reported partnering with French charging infrastructure company DBT to roll out superfast (150 kW) charging stations throughout Europe. Yay! Another contender is joining the race!
We don’t have much more information than that — no idea how many superfast charging stations are in the plans, how quickly they will roll out, if the 2018 Nissan LEAF will be able to charge at such a rate, or how well these stations are placed for actual long-distance trips (the stations should be along highways, of course, not in city centers).
However, DBT reportedly has 2,100 fast charging stations running for Nissan across the continent, and the first part of the plan is to simply upgrade stations to 150 kW as fast as possible. It’s not clear what percentage of the stations can legitimately be upgraded, though.
This may not result in something that fully competes with Tesla’s Supercharging network anytime soon, but it sounds like a solid step forward that could easily propel Nissan into the #2 spot behind Tesla by 2020. (Yes, I know that Nissan has sold more electric cars than Tesla so far, but let’s be honest — things are going to change fast when the Model 3 starts arriving.)
With 2,100 fast charging stations in place, if the vast majority of those could switch to 150 kW, that could even put Nissan’s station number higher than Tesla’s if done quickly enough, but worth highlighting is that Tesla’s stations always have several stalls so that you shouldn’t have to worry about finding a charger and these stations were carefully planned to create an integrated network of charging stations that supports long-distance travel along as many common routes as possible. I’m not finding any evidence on the DBT site that its charging infrastructure was installed in such a thoughtful way. We’ll see.
There’s been a lot of enthusiasm regarding a Daimler + BMW + Volkswagen + Ford superfast charging network in Europe, but after talking to several EV charging leaders within and outside of those companies, my impression has been that it’s very much at the early stages and will take several years to catch up to where Tesla’s network is today. In other words, Nissan’s approach seems to be ahead of theirs yet again.
However, the DBT news adds that these new DBT charging stations include not only CHAdeMO chargers (that Nissan’s vehicles use), but also CCS Combo chargers (that most other non-Tesla, non-Nissan electric cars use). So, inherent in the news is that other automakers will be able to benefit from this superfast-charging rollout as long as they build cars that can charge at such speeds.
As far as the United States, it’s not clear if Nissan has a plan, but it must. Presumably, it will find a way to partner with EVgo, ChargePoint, and/or other charging network leaders in a similar way to how it has partnered with DBT in Europe. It also has its own CHAdeMO fast chargers installed at dealerships across the country. I would expect an announcement sometime this year, before or when a long-range next-gen Nissan LEAF is unveiled, that indicates Nissan has been working to offer high-power charging to next-gen LEAF buyers. We’ll see.
Presumably, the ChargePoint and EVgo networks will also include high-power CCS charging ports just as DBT is doing. So, if Nissan partners with one or both of them, I’d expect these charging networks to rope in other automakers as quickly as they can. The big bottleneck may simply be automaker delays building long-range electric cars that can charge at rates over 100 kW, but maybe those are much further along the development pipeline than we think.
Additionally, though, the question is again how many of the existing stations can be upgraded to higher power, how fast new stations can be permitted and built, and how well integrated these networks end up being geographically.
The refreshing news is that Nissan seems to be changing pace from a light jog to a genuine run, which will offer some much needed variety to the “practical long-distance electric car” market and further push other large automakers to put on their running shoes and jump into the race. They may start out laps behind Tesla and Nissan, but at least they’ll be trying to compete then!