Elon Musk’s DC Visit Stirs EV Charging Standardization Pot, Again

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk set the Intertubes humming yet again on Friday, when Reuters scooped the news that he met with two high-level Biden administration officials in Washington, DC. Electric vehicle production and EV charging station buildout were reportedly on the menu. That raises the question of whether or not Tesla will agree to a single standard for charging stations in North America other than its own.

ev charging stations electrify america
High level meeting or not, Volkswagen is among the auto makers likely to stick with the CCS EV charging standard, at least for now (image courtesy of Electrify America).

Short Answer: Nope

As of last fall, Tesla indicated that it does want a single standard, which happens to be its own technology and not the familiar Combined Charging System (CCS) used by almost all of the rest of the industry. The company went ahead and proposed something called the “North American Charging Standard,” although no such standard exists outside of Tesla’s publicity machine.

That puts the company at odds with other US and global automakers that support the Combined Charging System, first introduced in 2011. Though automakers in Japan and China continue to use their own systems, CCS has been adopted as the standard by every other automaker in Europe and North America except Tesla.

High-level meeting with White House officials or not, Tesla appears nowhere close to joining the rest of the automotive gang on CCS. Instead, the company is on track to make it easier for other EVs to use an adapter to use Tesla charging stations in the US and Canada, as it has done in other countries.

Why Can’t Tesla Be The Actual EV Charging Standard?

Earlier this month CleanTechnica’s Jennifer Sensiba pointed out several reasons why other EV charging stakeholders are not likely to switch from CCS to Tesla. She noted as well that Tesla’s charging equipment does not currently qualify for tax incentives under the Inflation Reduction Act. The IRA specifies “non-proprietary connectors that meet applicable industry safety standards,” Sensiba wrote, which means CCS.

To qualify for the incentives, Tesla could go through the same years-long approval process undertaken by the automotive stakeholders that supported CCS and continue to support it.

However, as noted by Sensiba, the global EV charging pace-setting organization CharIN (stands for Charging Interface Initiative) has pulled the rug out from under that idea. “Why reinvent the wheel?” is a good summary of its stance.

CCS has gone through many years of rigorous standardization processes, which is a required activity for any new standard proposal. After a decade of collaborative work, the domestic and international EV industry has aligned around CCS,” stated the North America chapter of CharIN last November.

CharIN name-checked Audi, BMW, Daimler, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai/Kia, Lucid, Lotus, Mazda, MAN, Mercedes-Benz, Navistar, New Flyer, Nikola, Nissan, PSA Groupe, Proterra, Renault, Rivian, Scania, Stellantis, Subaru, Suzuki, Tata Motors, Tesla — yes, even Tesla — Toyota, Volvo, and Volkswagen as “automakers that are using and supporting CCS.”

The organization went further, warning that adopting Tesla’s charging system would set the whole industry back instead of accelerating the transition to EVs.

“… we encourage stakeholders to investigate ways to focus on market acceleration rather than the creation of yet another form factor alternative, which will lead to further consumer confusion and delay EV adoption,” CharIN stated.

CCS Is Not The Only Obstacle

Aside from specifying CCS, the Inflation Reduction Act could also impact Tesla indirectly. Starting this year, the federal tax credit for EV charging stations is only available in non-urban and low-income communities. Those limitations are at odds with the profile of the typical Tesla buyer, which trends white, wealthy, and male.

Against this backdrop, it’s possible that Musk discussed workarounds for both EV charging station standards and tax credit limitations at the meeting on Friday. As reported by Reuters (here’s that link again), he met with Biden advisers Mitch Landrieu and John Podesta, a senior adviser to the President in charge of the energy transition.

Good luck with that. As the senior infrastructure coordinator for the Biden administration overseeing the disbursement of Inflation Reduction Act funding, Landrieu would be keenly aware of the disruptive risk of embracing a new EV charging standard at this stage of the game.

As for Podesta, he is not just another “Democratic stalwart,” as described by Reuters. Podesta served under Presidents Clinton and Obama. He also founded the well known liberal think tank Center for American Progress, which has been keeping an eye on the goings-on over at Twitter under Musk’s ownership.

“While pretending to give power back to the people, Elon Musk is actually turning Twitter into an autocratic system where neo-Nazi accounts are restored while journalists’ accounts are suspended,” CAP stated in a press release last December.

Last week, Business Insider and other news organization also reported that a leaked memo indicated that Musk personally ordered the suspensions.

This is just a wild guess, but it doesn’t seem likely that Biden administration would damage its reputation as a bulwark against fascism just to engineer special carveouts in the IRA for Elon Musk.

Brand Reputation Kicks In For EV Charging Standard

The brand reputation angle also applies directly to automakers and other EV stakeholders. In her article, Sensiba points out that dropping CCS is a nonstarter for other automakers. They would make themselves look like followers, not leaders, if they adopted the Tesla EV charging system after a longstanding commitment to CCS.

The brand reputation angle is stronger than ever, partly due to the maturing of the corporate ESG (environment, social, governance) movement — a movement that Musk has maligned, by the way.

Even as other automakers attempt to burnish their ESG profiles, Tesla has been backsliding in recent years. The aura of mystique surrounding Musk and Tesla has congealed into a series of concrete brand reputation issues, including allegations of “rampant discrimination” at his Fremont factory and his refusal to collaborate on a common sense public health response to the COVID-19 outbreak, on top of his behavior as both and account holder and owner of Twitter.

In this context, dropping CCS for a Tesla system is a nonstarter. Take Volkswagen, for example. The automaker faced a huge scandal of its own back in 2015, when an investigation revealed widespread, systematic cheating on diesel emissions tests. It does not seem likely that a German automaker with a global reach would incur further reputational risk by aligning itself with a high-profile American CEO accused of right-wing sympathies.

As part of its settlement in the US, Volkswagen launched its Electrify America EV charging station offshoot. Since then, it has become a mainstay on EV charging station buildout.

In a recent update, Electrify America noted that it “expects to install or have under development approximately 1,800 total charging stations with over 10,000 chargers in the United States and Canada by 2026.

In addition, Electrify America has been focusing on the very communities passed over by Tesla’s high sticker price. Last December, the company announced another $3 million investment in support of community-based organizations that promote electric vehicles in low-income and disadvantaged communities, in California.

“This effort is part of the company’s broader commitment to environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices, and supports the existing plan to invest $200 million in California ZEV infrastructure and education programs in the state through mid-2024,” Electrify America stated.

That seems to settle the matter, for now at least. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

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Photo: Electric vehicle charging stations courtesy of Electrify America.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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