Mary Barra and Elon Musk may be deep business rivals, but they sounded like old friends when talking Twitter This month about a deal that could help overcome one of the biggest obstacles to electric vehicle ownership: the lack of adequate chargers.
Ms. Barra, chief executive of General Motors, had just agreed to follow ford motor In adopting the charging technology developed by Tesla, the carmaker led by Mr Musk. The deals will allow GM and Ford customers to use some of Tesla’s fast chargers. Surveys show that the fear of not being able to find a charger is one of the main reasons some people hold back from buying an electric car.
Ms Barra praised Tesla’s “fantastic” team. Mr Musk said it was an “honour” to work with him.
Beneath those happy surfaces were probably some tough corporate calculations. GM, Ford and several charging companies and equipment suppliers have agreed to work with Tesla because they desperately need the company’s help. In addition to selling more electric cars in the United States than all other automakers combined, Tesla operates the nation’s largest fast-charging network.
But the decision to work with Tesla comes with big risks for the rest of the auto industry, which will continue to rely on Mr Musk, an accomplished leader, for essential technology. Tesla’s proprietary charging system, which it recently began calling the North American Charging Standard, is not overseen by an independent organization like other technology standards. The company has said it intends to cede control to such an entity, although some competitors are skeptical about how much control Tesla will give up.
The deal also brings with it risks for Tesla. Exclusive access to the company’s charging stations, some of which already had long lines during busy commutes, has helped the company sell the car to customers who might be bothered by waiting behind Ford and Chevrolet.
Fighting over technical standards is common with any new technology. The consequences can be painful for companies or consumers who bet on the wrong horse. Just ask anyone who has bought or invested in a video recorder, cellphone or digital music player that has since become obsolete.
The stakes are high with automobiles: They cost thousands of dollars, and replacing gasoline vehicles with electric models is critical to addressing climate change.
Some industry executives fear that the corporate mess around charging technology could discourage people from buying electric cars.
“It creates confusion,” said Oleg Logvinov, North America president of the Charging Interface Initiative. The organization is a forum for manufacturers, equipment suppliers and charging companies using the main competitor to Tesla’s standard, known as the Combined Charging System.
Buyers will probably wait until you find out who wins, Mr. Logvinov said.
Most manufacturers apart from Ford, GM and Tesla are making cars with CCS plugs, which are standard in Europe. Charging networks operated by companies such as Electrify America and eVigo primarily offer CCS plugs.
Tesla’s plug is lighter and easier to handle but only fits the company’s cars. Under agreements with Ford and GM, Tesla will introduce an adapter early next year that will enable cars from those manufacturers to connect to its roughly 12,000 fast chargers in the United States. In 2025, Ford and GM plan to make models designed to take Tesla plugs without an adapter.
The combined influence of Tesla, GM and Ford effectively forces operators of charging networks to install Tesla plugs and could make the CCS plug obsolete in the coming years, at least in North America. Rivian, a smaller electric vehicle company, said last week that it too would switch to the Tesla plug and that other manufacturers are considering doing the same.
,It’s important to us to make sure that charging is truly accessible and easy for customers,” Rivian chief executive RJ Scaringe said in an interview.
As the Tesla plug becomes dominant, people with cars designed to use the CCS plug will become increasingly dependent on adapters, which for safety are limited by how much voltage they can handle and more slowly. Will charge
Tesla’s system is known for being easy-to-use and reliable, while CCS chargers can be finicky. Frustration with existing charging networks is apparently one of the reasons Ford and GM decided to partner with Tesla.
“I absolutely don’t think this would happen if other networks were more reliable,” said Ben Rose, president of Battle Road Research, which tracks the electric vehicle industry.
But one reason Tesla’s system is performing so well is that the company designs and manufactures the entire system — the car, the software, and the charging hardware. Tesla will lose complete control once other automakers join its network.
Operating a charger that fuels dozens of vehicles from many different manufacturers is notoriously difficult.
“We charge 50 different models,” Cathy Zoey, chief executive officer of charging company eVigo, told an audience in New York this month. That said, manufacturers sometimes fail to inform eVigo about changes in vehicle software, leading to connection issues. “And the charger is to blame,” he said.
Tesla built a charging network because there were few places to charge when it started selling its first full-size passenger car, the Model S, in 2012. Tesla doesn’t disclose financial details about the network, but analysts say the company probably loses money on charging to encourage people to buy its cars. Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the Department of Energy, Tesla has 19,700 charging ports at about 1,800 stations across the United States, while it has 10,500 CCS ports at 5,300 stations. Only 12,000 Tesla chargers will be open for Ford, GM and Rivian vehicles.
The decision by other automakers to cooperate with Tesla and generate revenue for a competitor is an acknowledgment that Mr Musk’s company has the most experience operating charging networks.
Mr Musk promised not to harm GM and Ford customers, and other car companies say they believe him. “A The GM customer will be treated like a Tesla customer, and that is part of the arrangement,” Alan Wexler, the General Motors executive handling talks with Tesla, told reporters in New York this month.
But it’s not clear who will make sure the charging equipment is safe and works as well with Tesla rivals as it does with Tesla, and will refer any disputes between the company and other automakers.
Tesla is in talks with the Charging Interface Initiative about designating it to play the same role for the company’s technology as it already does for the CCS but Mr Musk has previously dismissed the CCS as a flawed product by a committee. Offended as such, he suggested that he might prefer another position.
Competitors are betting that government regulators will step in if Tesla tries to create a charging monopoly. Some are glad that someone is taking the lead in removing a major obstacle to the sale of electric vehicles.
“We’re in this really accelerated growth curve,” said Brendan Jones, chief executive of Blink Charging, which plans to install Tesla plugs in its network. “It’s really going to move the industry forward.”