Electric car makers fight over plug standard

Electric car Reuters final.JPG

This article is part of our special report Electric Vehicles.

A tussle between different designs of plugs used in prototype electric cars has derailed an attempt to create a common European standard, highlighting industrial jealousy as the sector attempts to go mainstream.

The EU's "focus group on electro-mobility" was set to adopt a standard type of plug for recharging European manufactured electric cars by 31 March, but an argument between rival designs scuppered agreement.

Sources close to the group told EURACTIV that the French and Italians had expressed misgivings over the German design of plug.

The German plug was expected to be adopted as standard, but the French and Italians blocked it because it lacked safety "shutters", used in some countries to protect children from accidental shocks from domestic plugs.

At stake for the winning design is not simply the manufacture of the plug itself, but also a perception that the winning jurisdiction will have home advantage with regard to standards for electric cars.

Some of the world's largest car manufacturers are set to roll out electric car lines in Europe, including German-based BMW Group and Daimler, France's Renault, Italy's Fiat and Micro-Vett, and also foreign-based companies such as Nissan.

A commentator close to the focus group, who preferred not to be named, said: "It [the dispute] is very regrettable and it is clear that industrial interests are at stake."

The focus group comprises members of the European committees for standardisation and for electro-technical standardisation, and also includes Commission personnel and industry specialists.

A report by the group to the Commission – expected next month – is now likely to recommend that the differing national standards which underlie the shutter dispute should be appraised, in an attempt to settle the matter.

Commission aware of disagreements

A spokesman for the EU's Industry Commissioner, Antonio Tajani – who tasked the group with agreeing the standard by the end of the summer – said that the Commission was aware of the disagreement and was watching developments with interest, but remained hopeful that the deadline could still be met.

The argument is likely to cause a delay of several months, and comes at an embarrassing moment as the Commission last week launched its 'Green eMotion' initiative.

The project aims to promote the use and manufacture of European electric cars and has been budgeted at €42 million, of which the EU says it will contribute up to €24 million.

A Commission spokesman stated on the launch that standardisation is "the key factor for a fast and cost-efficient European roll-out of electro mobility".

Under the initiative there will be more than 10,000 charging spots – where electric cars can fill up with power – within participating regions, including Rome and Berlin.

At the launch of the project in Brussels last week, Siim Kallas, the Commission's vice-president responsible for transport, jovially agreed to ensure that one of the first charging stations in Belgium would be built outside the Berlaymont building in Brussels, in the parking space reserved for commissioners' official cars.

As things now stand, there is no agreement in sight as to what kind of plug would used at such a station.

Although the German plug lacks shutters, it does have safety features controlled by the electronic systems in the car and the charging post, which are designed to make the plug inactive unless it is in use with an electric vehicle properly connected.

One member of the focus group, who preferred not to be named, said: "They [the Italians and French] argue: 'What if a child stuck a nail into the plug?' You may as well ask: 'What if a meteorite hit the child before the child stuck a nail in the plug?' so unlikely is that eventuality."

A commentator close to the French side of the argument said on condition of anonymity: "This is not about the technology. It is just that there are rules to be obeyed. Shouldn't companies usually abide by the rules? Is that not what usually happens in Germany?"

Peter Van den Bossche, a lecturer at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel who is a member of the focus group, pointed out that the German and French options were not the only plugs that could be adopted.

He said: "One should note that a harmonised European standard for plugs and sockets already exists, which describes accessories that could be perfectly suitable for safe and reliable electric vehicle charging. It represents a family of plugs and sockets which are widespread in Europe (and beyond) for heavy-duty and industrial purposes, but also for example in campgrounds and marinas."

Heike Barlag from Siemens, who manages the overall project coordination within Green eMotion, insisted that the launch of the Green eMotion initiative should help in the process of eventually agreeing a standard. She said: "Green eMotion is dedicated to solve standardisation issues, as one goal of the project is to develop such Europe-wide standards. I am very confident that this EU project will help to establish accepted common standards for e-mobility."

A spokesman for Industry Commissioner Antonio Tajani said that news of the dispute had been heard within the executive. He said: "The Commission is aware that an agreement should be reached. We are following developments closely, and we still hope that the deadline for the adoption of the standard will be within the limit set by the Commissioner [the end of the summer]."

Elena Santiago, director-general of European standards organizations CEN and CENELEC, commented: "Outstanding progress has been made by the focus group for electric vehicles on batteries, charging and payment infrastructures, vehicles themselves, communication between the vehicle and the grid, load control and reverse energy flow, electro-magnetic compatibility and electrical safety".

But she added that the standardisation work needs to be addressed from an international perspective, "in order to ensure the long-term competitiveness of our industry".

"The progress in the standardisation of chargers and connectors is especially complex due to the existence of different electrical installation rules within the EU and becomes even more complex if electrical installation rules outside Europe need to be taken into account," Santiago said.

She added: "There has been recent work at international level for these products, and the work is not complete. We need to make sure that international standards meet European needs as far as possible. The CEN and CENELEC Focus Group is considering European requirements relating to electric vehicle standardisation, and assessing ways to address them and at the same time trying to ensure good coordination to access the global market." 

"The Focus Group on European Electro Mobility was tasked with the preparation of an overview of European requirements. European standards are based on a consensus and European standardisation's objective is to agree on common specifications. The consensus building is part of the standards-making process, where we invite all interested stakeholders to express their voice," Santiago explained. 

"In practice, this can take some time and investment, which is the case for this focus group but it ensures that there will be a better and wider market acceptance without jeopardising safety requirements - this will certainly be a better response from CEN and CENELEC to European needs," she concluded. 

Last week the European Commission launched a four-year ‘Green eMotion' initiative to promote electromobility. With 42 partners drawn from car manufacturers, utilities, municipalities, universities and research institutions, the initiative is designed to promote shared know-how in selected European regions.

Partners in the project include industrial giants Bosch, IBM and Siemens, utilities EDF, Endesa and Enel, carmakers BMW, Daimler and Renault, and municipalities such as Berlin and Rome.

The initiative follows from last week's launch of a general transport strategy in which the Commission stepped up its battle against oil-fuelled cars, drawing up targets to halve their urban usage by 2030.

Electric and clean cars are still a niche in the EU market. However, a study by forecasting company IHS predicts that the global market share of electric vehicles in new car sales could hit 20% by 2030.

Standardisation of electric vehicles is becoming an important issue. Antonio Tajani, then commissioner for transport, asked the EU standardisation bodies in 2009 to provide the first common standards for charging electrical cars and for the smart grids by this summer.

  • Later this year the focus group will consider what national standards must apply to any standard that they wish to adopt, in an attempt to settle the dispute.

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