Watch CBSN Live

How Europe is Blowing Its Chance to Lead in Electric Cars

For the most part, the Europeans agreed on a common currency, the euro. So why can't they also agree on a single electric-car charging standard? There seems to be some national pride at work here, because several different standards have been proposed in France, Germany and Italy, and any compromise that would allow one of them to prevail continent-wide is far away.

So forget the euro and think of cheese or wine instead -- every country in Europe does them differently, and they're not about adapt to somebody else's palate.

U.S. is standardized
We may not agree on much in the U.S., but we've at least accepted the Society of Automotive Engineers' common J1772 standard for electric car charging. Public chargers in Austin, Texas connect exactly the same way, and with a common raygun-type five-pin plug, as those in San Francisco.

The European situation should be a no-brainer, because synchronizing standards is a job tailor-made for the European Union. And it should be a priority because of the continent's geography. Anyone who's visited Europe recently realizes that with the EU in place, borders are quite porous -- you can drive through national frontiers and barely slow down. That makes it quite likely that owners will move their electric cars frequently across those frontiers, charging in one country one day and another the next.

EVs a big European play
With high gas prices, a strong green consciousness and stringent EU regulations on carbon emissions, electric cars are likely to catch on in Europe in a big way. A Pike Research chart (above) shows European charger sales volumes not far behind those in the U.S. Both French and German automakers (and to a lesser extent Italy's Fiat with an electric 500) are committing to producing significant numbers of EVs for European roads. It should be easy over there, but instead there are roadblocks ahead, because every country handles electricity -- and by extension EV charging -- differently.

Since cars registered in different countries will use different plugs, public EV chargers won't include the cables -- instead, car owners will have to fill their trunks with a smorgasbord of them, with a variety of tips for incompatible systems. Imagine a gas station where you have to bring your own filler nozzles, which can be of several different designs.

Multiple plugs
Daniel Ciarcia, an EV project manager for General Electric (which is introducing the sleek WattStation in the U.S. and Europe) said that the company's chargers will carry multiple sockets in Europe to accommodate the failure to adopt a single standard.

Norwegian EV maker Think, which sells cars all over Europe, has had to develop a portable EV charger with different plugs for widely varying national systems. Charging from house current -- which is, fortunately, 220 volts in Europe -- is also a border issue because common household plugs vary widely from one country to the other.

Yet another issue is that the German-speaking countries use a different grid system from the rest of Europe, with the higher-capacity German systems much more conducive to faster EV charging. In the rest of Europe, where natural gas is commonly used for heating and cooking, a charging EV can easily overwhelm a home's electric system without an upgrade.

All in all, the European rollout could get messy, or at least a whole lot messier than it should.


Chart: Pike Research
View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue