Mary Barra and Elon Musk may be fierce business rivals, but they sound like old friends when they chat Twitter This month, a deal could help remove one of the biggest hurdles to electric car ownership: a shortage of chargers.
Ms. Barra, the chief executive of General Motors, has just agreed to follow the lead of Ford Motor Co. in adopting charging technology developed by Musk-led automaker Tesla. The deals will allow GM and Ford customers to use some of Tesla’s fast chargers. Fear of not being able to find a charger is the main reason some people hesitate to buy an electric car, the survey showed.
Ms. Barra gushed about Tesla’s “fantastic” team. Musk said it was an “honor” to work with her.
Beneath the surface of these pleasantries, some difficult corporate calculations may be lurking. GM, Ford, and a host of charging companies and equipment suppliers have all agreed to work with Tesla because they desperately need the company’s help. Tesla sells more electric vehicles in the U.S. than all other automakers combined, and it also operates the largest fast-charging network in the country.
But the decision to partner with Tesla poses significant risks for the rest of the auto industry, which will rely on erratic leader Musk for key technologies. Tesla’s proprietary charging system, which recently became known as the North American Charging Standard, isn’t the product of a collaboration between numerous companies that differ from other technology standards.
On Tuesday, SAE International, the association of engineers that sets technical standards for aircraft and vehicles, said it had reached an agreement with Tesla to develop a standard for charging connectors. The agreement will allow other automakers and charging companies to participate in the technology.
But oversight of other aspects of the system, such as software and charging equipment, is unclear, and some rivals have expressed doubts about how much control Tesla will relinquish.
The deal also poses risks for Tesla. The company has exclusive access to charging stations, some of which already have long lines during busy travel periods, helping it sell cars to customers who might be annoyed by waiting behind Fords and Chevrolets.
As with any new technology, technical standards battles are common. For companies or consumers who bet wrong, the results could be painful. Just ask anyone who has bought or invested in a VCR, cell phone, or digital music player that has since become obsolete.
Cars are far more risky: They cost tens of thousands of dollars, and replacing gasoline cars with electric models is key to fighting climate change.
Some industry officials worry that a chaotic business scramble for charging technology could deter people from buying electric vehicles.
“It creates confusion,” said Oleg Logvinov, North American president of the Charging Interface Initiative. The group, a forum for manufacturers, equipment suppliers and charging companies, uses the “Combined Charging System,” Tesla’s standard archrival.
Logvinov added that buyers “will probably wait until you know which one wins.”
Most manufacturers other than Ford, General Motors and Tesla have been producing cars with CCS plugs, the standard in Europe. Charging networks operated by companies such as Electrify America and EVgo primarily offer CCS plugs.
Tesla’s plugs are lighter and easier to handle, but only for the company’s cars. Under a deal with Ford and General Motors, Tesla will provide an adapter early next year that will allow cars from those manufacturers to connect to its roughly 12,000 fast chargers in the United States. In 2025, Ford and General Motors plan to produce vehicles that can use Tesla plugs without an adapter.
The combined influence of Tesla, GM, and Ford has effectively forced charging network operators to install Tesla plugs and may effectively render CCS plugs obsolete (at least in North America) in the coming years. Smaller electric car company Rivian said last week that it too would switch to Tesla plugs, and Volvo on Tuesday made the same commitment for vehicles sold by the automaker in North America. Other manufacturers are considering doing the same.
“It’s very important to us to make sure that customers can really charge easily. ” Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe said in an interview.
With Tesla plugs dominating, people with cars designed to use CCS plugs will increasingly rely on adapters, which are limited in how much voltage they can handle for safety reasons, and will charge more slowly.
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 work with Tesla.
“I absolutely think this wouldn’t have happened if other networks were more reliable,” said Ben Rose, president of Battle Road Research, which focuses on the electric vehicle industry.
But one of the reasons Tesla’s system is doing so well is that the company designed and built the entire system — the car, the software, and the charging hardware. Once other automakers join its network, Tesla will lose absolute control.
Operating a charger that can fuel dozens of vehicles from many different manufacturers is extremely difficult.
“We charge 50 different car models,” Cathy Zoi, chief executive of charging company EVgo, told an audience in New York this month. The manufacturer sometimes fails to notify EVgo about changes to the vehicle’s software, causing connectivity issues, she said. “Chargers will be blamed,” she said.
When Tesla started selling its first full-size passenger car, the Model S, in 2012, it built a charging network because there were few charging locations. Tesla has not disclosed financial information about the network, but analysts say the company could lose money on charging to entice people to buy its cars. Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the US Department of Energy, Tesla has 19,700 charging ports across the United States, spread across about 1,800 charging stations, and 10,500 CCS ports at 5,300 charging stations. Only 12,000 Tesla chargers will be open to Ford, GM and Rivian vehicles.
The decision by other automakers to ally with Tesla and generate revenue for rivals suggests that Musk’s company has the most experience operating charging networks.
Musk has pledged not to disadvantage GM and Ford customers, and other auto companies have said they believe him. “A It’s part of the arrangement that GM customers will be treated like Tesla customers,” Alan Wechsler, the GM executive in charge of negotiations with Tesla, told reporters in New York this month.
Rivals are betting that government regulators will step in if Tesla tries to establish a charging monopoly. Some are happy that someone has taken the lead in removing a major hurdle to electric vehicle sales.
“We’re really in an accelerating 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.”