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Gridtest aims for EV and charger harmony; harmony hard in China

June 18, 2013

There are only a few plug-in electric vehicles on the market, but more are on the way.  Meanwhile, there are already dozen of chargers out there, also known as Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE).  Sure, the EV manufacturer recommends a certain brand. But there are so many to choose from, and others that claim to be compatible with your brand of PEV.  How to know if an EVSE really is compatible with your PEV?  There’s a box for that.  It doesn’t work in China, though, because China doesn’t have an EVSE or plug standard yet….

Gridtest Systems Inc.  of Westlake Village, CA makes an “EV in a box” test system that is says can determine if an EV and an EVSE will work smoothly together.  It has versions that are designed to work in the lab and in the field.  The yellow box, also known as the EVE-100, which runs about $3,900, serves a dual purpose, testing both compatibility and safety, says Gridtest CEO Neal Roche.     “We run about 20 tests on the interface and make sure it is compliant to standard and that it de-energizes when it is supposed to,” he says.

The company, which was founded two and a half years ago, has sold around 400 units to its 50-odd customers.  Google, which has aggressively promoted workplace charging, is his biggest customer, says Roche.  Others include electrical contractors, utilities, the insurance industry, and test labs, he says.

“Part of our business is helping people get the vehicle and charger correct by design,” says Roche.   “The other is make sure it is reliable.”   Consumers don’t always use the recommended brand of EVSE, he says.  And automakers have also run into problem, for example Nissan Leaf users ran into problems with the General Electric Level 2 chargers in 2012, he says.  It was a software glitch with the Leaf.

Roche says would like to expand the Gridtest customer base, which would help drive production costs down.  But the market has thus far been slow. One problem in North America is that federal funding for charging station installation has ended, he says.  Another problem:  A workable business model for public charging hasn’t been found yet, says Roche.

What about China?  Isn’t it supposed to be installing lots of chargers to handle the hundreds of thousands of PEVs it has planned? Well, chargers are being installed, though not in the hundreds of thousands. The problem is, China as yet has no national EV standards for chargers or plugs.

So though Gridtest has talked to a couple of Chinese auto companies, and sold a few Gridtest test boxes to some charging station companies, the Gridtest boxes test to J1772 and IEC65851 standards, which are prevalent in the U.S. and Europe, says Roche.   “We would have to buy and import some of the Chinese charging stations to test our product,” he says.

Harder than it looks

As the PEV market grows,  Gridtest may run into Interoperability testing problems that it hasn’t anticipated, says Ted Bohn at Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Powertrain Research Facility.  Argonne and the SAE are working on a standard – J2953 – to establish best practices for plug-in electric vehicle and EVSE interoperability.  Bohn is on the committee working on it.  He clearly feels frustrated that many – including the folks at Gridtest – don’t get how many variables go into testing interoperability.  There is a “big state department meeting” about the issue on July 18, says Bohn.  “There are a whole bunch of resources behind it; everybody has it on their minds,” he says.   Except even some of his colleagues at Argonne don’t grasp its significance, adds Bohn.

Bohn says that testing interoperability is about testing functionality between two definitive devices, a vehicle and an EVSE.  “You can’t plug in a tester and say this is an inoperable charger.  You can only say it about a vehicle and a charger,” he says.    “You can’t universalize because there are too many differences.”

Gridtest’s “EV in a box” might measure what the vehicle does, but “what you really need is a precise measure of what happens on each side,” insists Bohn.  There are three areas that need to be measured, he says: Plugging and unplugging; what happens when unexpected things occur on the grid such as a lightning strike; and timing issues specific to each vehicle, such as does the ignition turn all the way off before charging begins.

Okay, then what good is J2953?  At least it will minimize the differences, says Bohn.  So there are a lot of variables that Gridtest will have to consider.  At least when J2953 come out later this year it will have something to start with….

Meanwhile, back in China, Argonne is working with China “as best we can”  to have some similar standards as the U.S. and Europe,  says Bohn.  But China wants to simplify everything, he says with exasperation (sort of the same tone he used when discussing Gridtest).  The Chinese “are trying to get at the broad answer without knowing what is the question,” says Bohn.

China’s electric infrastructure might be able to handle a bunch of buses plugging in at night, but not a bunch of individuals plugging in at random times of the day pulling 220 amps (China’s electricity is all 220V; don’t plug in your hairdryer there or it is a goner.), says Bohn.  Can you say PEV-induced brownout?

Details, details. Hey,  maybe that means it will be easier for Gridtest to enter then Chinese market than Roche thinks.  In any case, Gridtest is focusing on the U.S. and Europe right now, says Roche.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. John Kua permalink
    June 20, 2013 2:40 am

    Hi Alysha,
    John here again. Thanks for interesting article.
    Just to share what I know about China’s EV charging standards – I believe China’s MIIT (Ministry of Industry and Information Technology) in end 2011, in consultation with China’s science and technology community, industry players such as utility, automakers, released a set of 4 common standards relating to EV charging, with details such as technical requirements for EV to charging-station interface, communications protocols, safety, standard AC and high voltage DC charging. These standards are made official in March 2012. Their standards are aligned more towards European (German) version than the US or Japanese variants. The reason such plugs/EVSEs are not widely seen, I believe is the proverbial “chicken-egg” issue. Without a critical mass of market acceptance for EVs, manufacturers won’t mass-produce them, and vice-versa for potential EV buyers.

    Hopes my contribution helps. Will continue to update you as I gather more info in my consultancy.

    Best Regards
    John Kua

    • June 21, 2013 3:20 pm

      Hi John, it is true that some standards have been approved and they are more like the European standard than the U.S. standard on the EVSE end. However, onthe vehicle coupler end China came up with its own design that reverses the male and female coupler pins and alters tolerances and dimensions. Friends of mine at Argonne and SAE have expressed concerns about its safety. In any case, according to my industry sources a nationwide standard probably won’t be out until late 2014.


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