Tesla is winning the EV charging format war

In the 2000s, there was a media format war between Sony’s Blu-ray and Toshiba’s HD DVD. Sony, which owns a production company, convinced Warner Bros. to drop the rival format. And then Paramount followed suit, putting the last two nails in HD DVD’s coffin.

Fast-forward to electric vehicle charging standards war, and it feels like déjà vu. Last month, Ford announced it’s adopting Tesla’s previously proprietary North American Charging Standard (NACS) port for its future vehicles. And General Motors, the largest automaker in North America, just announced yesterday that it’s following suit. Together, Ford, Tesla, and GM represent nearly three-quarters of the EV market in the US — or 72 percent.

Tesla is starting to look like Sony in 2008, primed to make a crushing blow. And the Combined Charging System (CCS) may be like Toshiba’s HD DVD, heading to the ash heap of history. CCS (specifically CCS Type 1 or CCS1) is used on practically every non-Tesla EV charging station in North America. It’s also the standard certified by the Society of Automotive Engineers, not the creation of any one private company.

“CCS could be in trouble,” Gartner vice president and analyst Mike Ramsey said in an email to The Verge. “With Ford and GM agreeing to use that charging standard, it’s a bit like Samsung saying they will use the Apple lightning charger on its phones.”

But CSS still has one big chip left to cash: the US government. Under current law, federal funding for EV charging is restricted to CCS chargers. In a statement to Reuters , White House spokesperson Robyn Patterson said there are minimum standards for EV chargers to get public funding, but they need to be interoperable to promote competition. “Those standards give flexibility for adding both CCS and NACS, as long as drivers can count on a minimum of CCS,” Patterson said.

“I’m guessing that lobbyists from GM and Ford are talking DOE to get those rules changed ASAP,” Guidehouse Insights principle research analyst Sam Abuelsamid tells The Verge in an email. Should automakers persuade the government to amend its rules, it will only continue to make EV ownership more complicated and unpredictable for customers.

Prior to Ford and GM’s announcements, Tesla already had more EV charging stations in North America as compared to EV chargers using CCS ports. That’s all thanks to Tesla’s early push to install its electric vehicle stations, not just in the US but around the world. The company has 45,000 charging stations around the world — 12,000 of which are in the US.

Both Tesla and other EV standards were living in an odd coexistence in the US even before Ford and GM had dropped the news. The slower Level 2 AC charging stations, found in many parking garages and grocery store lots, use the almost ubiquitous J1772 plug that’s on all current EVs except for Teslas.

Tesla owners all get a J1772 adapter included with their cars, allowing them to additionally access over 53,000 Level 2 stations in North America. Meanwhile, other EV owners would need to find an aftermarket adapter solution if they wanted to use a public Tesla AC wall connector or destination charger.

The adapter actually highlights a benefit in Tesla’s NACS design, in which a single lightweight port supports both AC and DC fast charging. That’s in contrast to CCS1, which is a bulkier connector that essentially fuses together J1772 and DC power pins and takes a good amount more real estate on the outside body of an EV.

For Ford and GM engineers, substituting Tesla NACS in place of the huge CCS port on the EVs would be largely inconsequential. But there are broader industry issues that need to be addressed. For one, vehicle-to-grid (V2G) bidirectional charging features, like those included with the Ford F-150 Lightning and some Hyundai and Kia EVs, may need to be reworked. V2G essentially lets you use your car as a mobile generator for your house or electrical appliances.

Although NACS is capable of bidirectional charging, Musk isn’t a fan of the idea. He mentioned in Tesla’s Investor Day event last March that homes will “go dark” when unplugged. Ford may want to keep its bidirectional CCS port on the Lightning to make sure its current home backup-capable charger keeps working. But having two ports, both CCS and NACS, on one car might become costly, complicated, or prone to damage.

Tesla’s Superchargers were once exclusively for Tesla owners. But those days are over. Both Ford and GM plan to add Tesla NACS natively to future vehicles — starting in 2024 for Ford and 2025 for GM. But in the meantime, the two legacy automakers will be distributing adapters to their EV customers early next year, enabling them to charge at Tesla Superchargers in the months to come.

Tesla was already on its way to making its DC fast charging Supercharger stations interoperable with other non-Tesla EVs. Its solution is to add a “Magic Dock” CCS adapter to stations that can pop out when needed using Tesla’s app. As it stands, if Tesla wants in on the $7.5 billion funding pool by the Biden administration, it won’t be off the hook from building Magic Dock stations no matter how many manufacturers jump aboard NACS.

“Behind cost, consumers’ biggest concern when considering an EV purchase involves charging as it’s an overwhelming unknown to so many,” Edmunds executive director of insights Jessica Caldwell tells The Verge. “And for EVs to truly take off, there needs to be some standardization so consumers feel comfortable knowing they have ample charging locations to turn to and won’t be left stranded on the side of the road.”

Customers should not have to deal with a roulette wheel of plug options when pulling up at Electrify America, EVgo, or similar fast charging stations. And carrying an adapter, like the ones GM and Ford will offer, isn’t ideal, either — though it’s not known whether GM and Ford will completely remove CCS on future vehicles. But in the meantime, Musk will have to wait a little while longer before he can dance on the grave of CCS.