I recently took a road trip in my new car with my friend of Aging Wheels. In February I took delivery of a Hyundai Ioniq 5, and I wanted to see how a road trip in my very-fast charging but also not-a-Tesla electric car would go.
So did he, so I brought him along. It was perfect because we’ve both always wanted to go to Gatorland! Anyway, he made a blog on how the road trip went which I highly suggest checking out, and I’m here to make a blog on how it was possible. Wait I’ve already made it. It’s this one. This blog will cover the charging tech which powers long-distance, electric driving. I’ll be discussing the chargers, how they deliver energy to the car, and the theoretical speed with which they can do that. In a later blog, I’ll be talking about the realities of electric car charging in 2024.
What is the fast charging way Maximum power DC charging station?
We can see the standardized charging connector and its maximum power delivery — is actually already solved and pretty future-proof. We need wayyyyy more chargers than exist right now, but with the charging tech that is on the ground today, the 1,185 mile (or 1,907 kilometer) trip we just took – which takes about 18 hours of driving! – could theoretically be accomplished with just one hour of total charging time. Potentially less with a more efficient vehicle. We’re not quite there yet with today’s battery tech, but we’re surprisingly close. Before I move on I want to stress a very important point.
Electric cars offer an entirely new paradigm of refueling, which I’ve found is really quite hard to communicate. In an ideal world, the fast chargers we’re looking at in this blog are seldom used. Yes, we will need them — and many more of them — for enabling long-distance travel in electric vehicles, but a much, much, MUCH easier and better way to manage charging personal vehicles is by doing it slowly at home. As a matter of fact, at-home charging has meant that this road trip was the first time I’ve EVER put thought into how I will charge my car, and I’ve been driving fully-electric cars since late 2017.
Simply plugging in at home and charging while I sleep means the day starts with a fully-charged car, and I’ve spent zero time waiting for my car to charge until this trip. So while, yes, we spent more time on the road trip than we would have in my old Volt burning gasoline, I also never spend time at gas stations for my day-to-day driving needs. And that’s pretty nice. Solving at-home charging access for areas where this is currently difficult, for example apartment complexes or neighborhoods with on-street parking only, is something that I think we should be focusing our attention on first.
We should probably also work to reduce dependence on cars for mobility but that’s not in the scope of this blog. Yes, in theory fast charging could meet the needs of those who can’t charge at home and who rely on a car. But fast chargers are orders of magnitude more complicated and expensive to install, whereas a basic Level 2 AC charger can be had for a few hundred bucks and may only require the installation of something like a dryer outlet.
There’s also the issue of battery wear – fast charging is more stressful to a battery pack, so relying on exclusively it may reduce the pack’s useful life. And, setting all that aside, it’s simply far more convenient to charge at home. Once you get a taste of it, going to a place to buy fuel starts to feel kinda silly.
What separates these fast chargers from the rest?
With all that in mind, first let’s talk about what separates these fast chargers from the rest. A while back I made a blog on electric vehicle supply equipment, or EVSE. That is in fact the proper term for this thing as its primary job is to provide AC line voltage to the car. It does have the very important task of telling the car the capacity of its electrical supply, and it also does a few other safety-related things but the actual thing with charging circuitry in it — circuitry which takes AC power and turns it to DC for charging up the battery cells — is a module onboard the car.
Different cars have different battery pack voltages, chemistries, and sizes, so having the car handle charging itself is generally easier. And also makes the infrastructure much much cheaper to build out since this is really just a beefy extension cord with a bit of smarts inside. And that’s why this thing isn’t technically a charger. However, calling it “an equipment” is pretty clunky so most of us still call it a charger.
Here in North America, the *standard* AC charging connector is generally known by the very easy to remember SAE J1772 Type 1 connector. Later on I’ll talk about the elephant in the room that is Tesla, but aside from their cars literally every – and I cannot stress that enough, EVERY – plug-in vehicle sold in North America since 2010, regardless of who built it, has this exact plug.
From the original Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, to the Rivian R1T and the Porsche Taycan, all of ‘em have this connector for AC charging! If I sound weirdly riled up here, it’s because there’s persistent confusion surrounding this, probably because That Company does things differently, but we’ll get to that later. This connector can supply up to 80 amps of single-phase current, and at 240 volts that’s 19.2 kW. That’s a pretty uncommon power level, though, with the 6 to 10 kW range being far more widespread. This Amazon special, a portable EVSE with a NEMA 14-50 plug on the other end, will supply up to 30 amps, which is 7.2 kW at 240 volts. For what it’s worth, I think this is the most power just about anyone might need – so long as they have regular access to a charger at home.
Some other markets use a fancier version of this connector which goes by all these names and has more pins. This enables the use of three-phase supplies which are fairly common in those markets. But here in North America three-phase power is essentially non-existent in the residential space so the Type 1 connector doesn’t support it. There’s just no real-world use case for three-phase support in personal vehicles over here.
What the fast charging network?
In any case, we’re still talking in the realm of AC. So far we’ve been using this to connect the vehicle to the grid and letting it handle turning the flippy floppy zippy zappy into the plus and minus kind. You may have noticed, though, that right below the charge port on this car is a little thing that says “pull.” I always listen to instructions, so let’s pull that out. Aha… what have we here? Suddenly, two more pins have appeared below the connector.
Our J1772 connector is in fact a CCS1 combo coupler. CCS stands for Combined Charging System, and the 1 means, simply that this is the combined charging system for the type 1 connector. CCS2, used in markets with the Type 2 AC plug, also sports these new beefy pins. These pins are simply an augmentation of the original AC connectors, which maintains compatibility with existing AC equipment. And their purpose is to provide a direct connection to the vehicle’s battery pack. If you’re wondering why we might want that, well remember that the car’s onboard charger has to fit somewhere in the car. Size and weight limitations mean that it can only be so powerful. But even if that weren’t a problem, a typical home’s electrical supply can only provide so much power.
The 80 amp limit of the North American AC connector is almost half of a large home’s electrical supply, so there’s another reason few cars support charging at that speed. But suppose you could take the battery pack out of the car and bring it to a specialized machine which could handle many kilowatts of power. If you could do that, well it wouldn’t matter how big and bulky that theoretical machine is because it doesn’t need to fit in the car. And, you could power that machine with a much larger electrical supply than that which you find in a home. Now, removing the battery pack is a really involved affair (much to the chagrin of folks who admire the idea of battery swaps) so rather than do that, we bring the car to one of these special machines and hook its battery up to it through here. We call this idea DC fast charging, and this connector can handle up to 350 kW of power. Which is bonkers. And actually it can handle a bit more than that but 350 kW is the maximum speed you’ll find in the wild today. The CCS combo coupler’s DC pins are rated to carry up to 500 amps of current continuously. And the chargers they are hooked up to can provide DC power anywhere from 200 to 1000 volts. Today’s stations that are marked “up to 350 kW” are generally able to provide 350 amps at 1000 volts, though they might also be able to do 500 amps at 700 volts.
Yeah, there’s some nuance when it comes to amp limitations and how that relates to your car’s battery pack voltage which we’ll get to in the next blog, but the basic concept here is that a tremendous amount of energy can be shoved through this connector and directly into your car’s battery pack very quickly. On that note, at most stations the thing which you interact with and which holds the cable for plugging into your car isn’t actually doing any of the power conversion.
These things are called dispensers, and they are really just a place to put the cable, maybe a screen and card reader, and of course some graphics. Concealed cables run underground from these dispensers to the actual charging equipment. Generally the equipment consists of a large pad-mount transformer to tap into the grid, and a series of cabinets. The stuff in those cabinets is what actually converts the AC power from the grid into DC for charging a car. Those are the actual chargers, and since we don’t have the space or cooling limitations of an onboard charger, and since these are hooked to megawatt-plus electrical supplies, these things can handle immense amounts of power. That’s the key to DC fast charging. With AC charging, it’s pretty hands-off and fairly limited.
Basically, the EVSE tells the car “hey, you can take up to 30 amps” and the car will say “great I’d like power now” and the EVSE goes *clack* and now the car will have AC line voltage at its charge port, and it’s up to the car to handle the rest. But DC fast charging is much more hands-on in pretty much every way. In the case of the CCS connector, the control pilot pin becomes used for high-level communications. When you plug a car into one of these chargers, a handshake occurs and a number of things start getting communicated in both directions. See, now that we’re offloading the task of charging from the car’s own electronics, the car has to be able to control the charger on the other end of the cable.
Of course the charger also needs to tell the car what it’s capable of, and a sort of game plan is agreed to during the initial handshake. Once the car and the charger agree that charging can proceed, the connector becomes locked to the car (which by the way happens on the car-side, so you won’t be trapped there if the charger should die for whatever reason) and then the car closes a contactor in its battery pack which connects the DC pins of the combo connector straight to the pack. At that point, the car and charger are in constant communication, and the car tells the charger the voltage and current it wants based on its battery pack’s capabilities, characteristics, conditions, and state-of-charge. If anything seems to be going wrong on either side, charging will immediately stop.
Earlier I said these chargers can output anything from 200 to 1000 volts DC. Why such a big range? Well, let’s talk about battery pack voltage. Every EV out there was designed with its battery pack configured in a certain way. The actual battery cells are wired in series-parallel groups to attain a certain nominal pack voltage. Many cars, including Teslas, have what we call 400V architectures, but that’s really more of a class than it is an exact pack voltage spec.
Since the actual pack voltage varies from car to car, the voltage the charger needs to provide will vary as well. And as a battery takes on charge, the voltage required to keep charging it gradually goes up. So the charger needs to have a range of voltage output even when charging a single car. Now, a 400V car will never need 1000V pumped into it. But many manufacturers are moving to higher pack voltages. My Hyundai, along with its Kia and Genesis siblings on the E-GMP platform, has an 800V architecture. The advantage of a higher pack voltage is that every conductor involved in making the car go (so bus bars between cells in the pack, the cables from the pack to the motor inverters, and most importantly for this discussion the cables coming from the charging connector) can carry more power with the same current. There are some extra considerations that need to be made when you cross into higher voltages, particularly with insulation and certification of power-handling components.
But the upside of a higher pack voltage is that it requires less material for conductors throughout the system, and also gives you much more overhead before you start running into problems where those conductors heat up and cooling is required. Speaking of cooling, people who know their way around electricity might be surprised by how relatively thin the cables are on these chargers. A conductor which can carry 500 amps is generally quite thick, and this doesn’t look thick enough for that. In fact it’s not – but that’s on purpose. These cables are actually liquid-cooled, with a pump circulating coolant along the cable’s length and through a radiator inside the dispenser. This allows it to use smaller conductors to carry the current, making the cable easier to handle.
I would say it’s a tiny bit more difficult than handling a gas pump nozzle and its hose, but that mainly comes from the cable’s stiffness. The actual weight is pretty comparable, and I could easily plug in one handed. Liquid-cooling does come at the expense of a little charging efficiency, though, as some energy is lost as heat in the cable. But the same cable without active cooling can only handle 200 amps, so I’d say it’s definitely a worthwhile trade-off. Oh, and that’s yet another reason why higher pack voltages are likely the future. 200 amps at 750 volts is 150 kW – and that’s still a pretty fast charging rate.
But a 400V pack when limited to 200 amps will only see 80 kilowatts at best. A lower pack voltage will always require much more current to deliver the same power, and while there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, it is a limitation and is one of the main reasons many manufacturers are eyeing 800V – or even 900V – battery architectures. Now I think it’s a good time to address the elephant in the room. So far, I’ve been talking exclusively about CCS chargers. I’ve done that on purpose because, you see, CCS is the established standard DC fast charging connector, and every automaker selling cars for the US market is either already using it or, in the case of Nissan, has pledged to use it going forward.
The DC fast charging station with Liquid Cooling HPC CCS Type 2 Plug and Cable supports 600A current and can fully charge the EV in 10 minutes!
What is the Tesla Supercharger network?
You might be familiar with Tesla’s Superchargers. Tesla calls their DC fast charging network the Supercharger network, and the tech is fundamentally the same as CCS. In fact in many markets it IS CCS – just with their slick brand. However, here in the North American market, Tesla decided to make their own connector for their cars which they use to this day. Now, I have to tell you (because if I didn’t I’d never hear the end of it) that they initially did this with good reason.
When they released the Model S in 2012, the CCS standard had not yet been finalized. They didn’t want to wait around for that to happen, and so made their own standard. And to their credit, they were pretty clever with the design. Tesla’s proprietary connector doesn’t use separate pins for DC and AC charging. Instead, it uses two very large pins that serve both purposes. When AC charging these are Line 1 and 2, and feed the car’s onboard charger. But, when Supercharging, they connect directly to the battery pack and the offboard charger takes care of things. Now I will freely admit the Tesla connector is much more elegant than this stormtrooper thing.
However, a closed ecosystem has costs. There are some great benefits, too – undoubtedly why it’s still the way it is. But I have serious concerns about Tesla’s continued use of their proprietary connector. OK, I have to interject with some news. Literally the day after I shot this blog, because of course that’s how my luck would go, Elon Musk confirmed that Tesla plans to start fitting CCS cables to their Superchargers here in the US and will open up their network to serve other vehicles. This is genuinely great to hear, and while we don’t have any specifics yet on how this will go or when it will happen (and given Tesla’s track record on promises and timelines I’m definitely reserving judgment for now), I’m glad to see Tesla honoring their commitment to accelerate electrification and not just the sale of their own cars. I’ve decided to leave in the rather angsty section you’re about to see because, while it’s great that Tesla is making moves to help out other EVs (and I mean frankly why wouldn’t they, their supercharger network is a revenue center for them, though I do have some serious reservations about the precedent that sets) they are still building their own cars with their own proprietary connector. I’m pretty confident that they’ll eventually give it up but until they do they are putting themselves and their drivers in a bit of a pickle.
By not adopting CCS natively, which by the way they could have done half a decade ago and are only making the switch harder by continuing to not do it, Tesla is setting themselves up to be their customer’s sole (or at least primary) provider of fuel for long-distance travel in the US. And that’s a bad precedent. And it’s bad for both parties! In the case of Tesla drivers, they are at least partially beholden to Tesla when they want to go long distances (or just need a quick top-up in-town). A CCS adapter is on the way, but not all Tesla vehicles are able to support it without a hardware upgrade. Many can, but even in that case everybody knows the dongle life is not fun. And Tesla is now essentially forced to keep expanding the Supercharger network on their own as they sell more cars. They’re kinda stuck catering only to Teslas unless they start fitting CCS connectors to their chargers and open their network. Which they keep hinting they’re gonna do, in fairness. Of course Tesla deserves loads of credit for jumpstarting the switch to electrification, and I’ll never push back against that. They have done a lot to prove the merits of EVs, and undoubtedly we would not have so many options to choose from today were it not for them. See? I say nice things about them. But at this point, every automaker who isn’t Tesla has signed on to the CCS standard. And the reason this is such a thorn in my side is that I run across countless folks online who say things like “I won’t consider an EV until they settle on a dang charge port” and this irritates me so much because they have! But, except for Tesla.
And the fact that Superchargers are only for Teslas, is deep enough in the public consciousness that many people wrongly assume the rest of the industry must be copying that model. They aren’t, and thank goodness. As much as Tesla led the way, they’re now the only company who builds cars for sale in North America with a connector that isn’t this one. On our trip we saw cars from many brands; Ford, Chevy, Polestar, Hyundai, BMW, Kia, Volkswagen, and Porsche all connecting directly to the same chargers we were using, almost like it’s some sort of standard or something!
The Supercharger network is great, and when it comes to usability and reliability it’s currently the one to beat. But frankly I really don’t like the idea of automakers being in the business of selling fuel to their customers, especially when they sell a proprietary one. And that’s why I’m genuinely worried on behalf of Tesla’a drivers. This isn’t just me being sad about not having Supercharger access. Soon, the competition that already exists in the 3rd party charging networks will drastically heat up. Really compelling EVs are being sold by just about every automaker at this point, and that’s accelerating quickly.
I’m personally glad to have an EV that, while it’s currently more difficult to road-trip than a Tesla, is catered to by ChargePoint, EVGo, Electrify America, Shell ReCharge, and more without the need for adapters (it can also charge faster than any Tesla but l won’t rub it in too much). To everyone who thinks automakers should copy Tesla and build out their own charging networks, I’d ask that you consider what a future might look like where Ford is allowed to sell Ford Brand Electrons only to Fords. Unfortunately it sounds like Rivian might be headed down that path with their Adventure Network.
Anyway, with my Tesla angst out of the way, here’s what we’re left with; We have the technology to deliver 350 kW of power straight into the battery pack of a car. Earlier I said that would enable an 18 hour drive to happen with an hour of charging. Well, here’s how. It took my Ioniq 5 328 kilowatt-hours of energy to make that journey. And… that’s a bit less than 350, so if it had a battery which could take on all that power (which, it doesn’t but we’re playing with theory now not reality) not quite an hour of charging time would be needed in total. In a future car that might happen in four 15 minutes stops, or maybe six 10 minute stops if that’s more your bag. Also, the Ioniq 5 isn’t the most efficient highway cruiser, so something like a Tesla Model 3 might be able to drop the total charging time down to only 45 minutes, once battery tech catches up.
Now, what was the real-world charge time with my real-world car in the real-world conditions of the real world? Surprisingly close, actually. Had we stuck to what our route planner suggested, which involved stopping the charge at a suggested percentage to reach the next charger with about 10% state-of-charge remaining, we would have spent only 1 hour and 52 minutes charging at six different charging stops. Just 52 minutes on top of the theoretical best-possible charging speed ain’t bad. Now, we did hang around the chargers for a little while longer than suggested because we were facing a nasty headwind when we started out – and by nasty I mean like a sustained 15 to 20 mile-an-hour headwind. So in actuality we spent a total of 2 hours and 20 minutes charging.
It was my first time driving the car long distance, and I wanted some buffer just in case. It turned out, though, that the route planner was being quite conservative as even in those conditions, the predicted state-of-charge loss between stops was spot on.
So, had we stuck to its plan, we would have been fine. And as we moved South the headwind started to diminish, and so we started arriving at the next stops with more and more buffer over the predicted arrival range. Which, actually, would have shortened the charging time slightly since those later charging sessions all started out at a higher-than-predicted state of charge, shaving off a few minutes at each stop. Ah, that last section sure makes it sound like trying to road trip an EV takes a lot of planning, doesn’t it? Well, kind of. But not too much, really. There are some pretty great apps and websites out there which will help you manage this, like A Better Routeplanner, and several cars are emulating Tesla’s navigation-with-charging-stops system but around the available third-party networks. As time goes on, though, there will certainly be more chargers in more places, and hopefully this whole route planning business becomes obsolete.
It’s still early days for EVs and they’re not for everyone, but I hope you can see that the tech to make them work is here, it’s robust, and it’s fast. And I want to say that, having done this same road trip several times before, the forced 15 to 20 minute breaks every two or three hours were fantastic, and this genuinely felt like the fastest trip to Florida I’ve ever done. In both directions. Oh, and here’s a preview for the next blog, if you’re worried about what all these mega fast chargers are gonna do to the power grid – well, don’t be. Yeah, even just four cars sucking down 350 kW sounds like a gargantuan feat but that’s only 1.4 megawatts. But there’s already a few thousand of these things just in my state so… they could charge 10,000 cars at the same time, all on these ultra-fast chargers (at least when the wind is blowing). Actually 18,000 if Wikipedia’s up-to-date. And wouldn’t ya know it, here in Illinois we’ve got 11.8 gigawatts of nuclear capacity just sittin’ around doing fission and stuff. How many of these chargers would that support simultaneously? 33,831, and for some context Illinois only has about 4 thousand gas stations serving the entire state.
So, every gas station that exists now could have 8 ultra fast chargers using only the capacity of our six nuclear power plants – and once we get at-home charging sorted, we won’t need nearly that many fast chargers. Yes, the grid will need to grow and change to support a whole bunch of EVs, but it’s a lot less scary than it sounds. People a heckuva lot smarter than I am have done much better math, and they’re not that worried. Plus, I always like to point out that the grid went from nobody having air conditioning to just about everybody having air conditioning in just a few short decades, yet it managed that just fine. We’re humans. And when we want things to happen, we always find a way. We’ve got some challenges ahead, for sure, but I’m confident that we’ve got this.
Post time: Jan-11-2024