Plug and Charge Simplifies EV Charging


Suppose every time you went to buy gas, you needed a phone app or an RFID fob—and you had to be pre-enrolled with the brand. Drive in, validate the pump, and then learn how much you'd pay for your gasoline. No fob or app? You’d have to call a toll-free number to provide credit-card info over the phone.

That's pretty much how electric-car charging works today, for everyone but Tesla drivers. Some EV drivers carry up to six swipe cards, fobs, or phone apps for different networks along their travel routes.

There's a better way—and as early as 2012, Tesla showed the U.S. how to do it. You just drive in, plug in to charge, and any billing happens on the back end. That's how it should be, and the company's high-speed Supercharger network now lets you drive a Tesla almost anywhere in the lower 48 states.

Like Apple, though, Tesla has the advantage of a closed ecosystem: Only Teslas can charge at Tesla Supercharger sites. The company controls both sides of the transaction. Eight years later, the rest of the EV world—dozens of separate EVs, all of which may charge on dozens of different networks—has started to catch up.

Photo credit: John Voelcker
Photo credit: John Voelcker

Accidental Pioneer

Entirely by accident, I may have been the first civilian in the U.S. to experience the future of EV charging. Earlier in December, I drove 480 miles in four days showing a 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E test car to friends and EV drivers. On one trip, I stopped at an Electrify America DC fast-charging station. The machine told me to plug in first, so I inserted its 150-kW–capable connector into the charge port on the Mach-E's left front fender.

Lo and behold: I watched the machine quickly identify the car, validate the charge, and start the current flowing. No fob, no app, no toll-free number to call.

The magic behind this mundane transaction is the Plug and Charge protocol, which identifies an EV to a charging station. The charging network then validates the car with its maker, which provides billing information that starts the charging.

The system I used, all software invisible to me, is similar (but not identical) to a European Plug and Charge protocol already in use by drivers of several EVs on the pan-European Ionity network and others. Half a dozen car brands funded Ionity to make long-distance EV travel practical and seamless through more than a dozen European countries.

Plugging in a car and having it charge automatically doesn't sound like much, but the software integration and validation to make it happen are surprisingly complex. Electrify America, for instance, tests dozens of charging stations for compatibility with dozens of the latest electric cars—including prototype EVs in camouflage brought in closed trailers to its test labs in Vienna, Virginia.

Plug and Charge is rolling out in the newest generations of EVs sold in the U.S. The Mustang Mach-E and the 2021 Porsche Taycan both started shipping to dealers during December. I guess it's possible some Taycan owner beat me by a day or two, and, if so, I bet that person was just as pleased with the newfound simplicity as I am.

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