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A universal plug for electric cars

BMW launched the i3 in July. Image courtesy of BMW.
BMW launched the i3 in July. Image courtesy of BMW.

A transatlantic initiative hopes to encourage more people to buy electric cars by developing a universal plug that would drive down the cost and make charging as easy as filling up at a gas station.

Electric cars could alleviate pollution in Europe’s congested cities if only people started buying and driving them in significant numbers.

One of the big problems is that standards for plugs, cables, and electrical communications are different across the world, giving manufacturers a headache and causing potential buyers to think twice.

Earlier this year, the EU settled on a common plug for charging electric vehicles, but only after months of negotiations between Germany, France and Italy over different designs. Carmakers across the world still have differing standards for quick charging, causing confusion for electric car owners who would need to scout around for a compatible charging station.

That’s why research services in Europe and the US have teamed up to set up so-called interoperability centres, which make sure that different systems can work together so any electric car can be plugged in at any charging station.

‘Most car manufacturers operate on both sides of the Atlantic and we should come to the same result so that the vehicle that is produced for Europe is basically the same as the vehicle that is produced for the US market,’ said Dr Alois Krasenbrink, head of the Sustainable Transport Unit at Ispra, the Italian site of the EU’s in-house research service, the Joint Research Centre (JRC).

‘Most car manufacturers operate on both sides of the Atlantic and we should come to the same result so that the vehicle that is produced for Europe is basically the same as the vehicle that is produced for the US market.’

Dr Alois Krasenbrink, head of the Sustainable Transport Unit at Ispra, Italy

Cutting the cost

A major benefit of making sure that standards are the same in Europe and the US is that it will make life easier for manufacturers, meaning cheaper cars for consumers.

‘If for each possible plug socket configuration you have to provide an individual vehicle type for it, then the costs are extremely high,’ Dr Krasenbrink said.

Cost is one of the big sticking points with electric cars. Models that are on sale at the moment, such as the sporty Tesla Roadster, BMW’s i3, and the Nissan Leaf, still retail at luxury prices.

Sales of electric plug-in cars in Europe are forecast to grow from 45 000 in 2011, to more than 669 000 in 2020, according to Navigant Research, a research company specialising in green technology, but much of that growth depends on the success of the interoperability centres.

In the US, the impact is expected to be just as great. 'Fully electrified transport systems will cut US oil consumption by one-third and result in a 25 % reduction in carbon footprint,' said Eric Isaacs, the director of the US Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne laboratory, where the first of three new interoperability centres opened earlier this year.

Smart grids

However, power-hungry electric cars will increasingly depend on so-called smart grids - electricity grids that can route power to where it's most needed. 'We cannot meet these goals (reducing oil consumption) without an electric grid that can power and sustain them,' Isaacs said.

The interoperability centres, the result of over 18 months of negotiation between the JRC and the US DOE that began when an initial agreement was signed in 2011 and ended earlier this year, will look at the nuts and bolts of developing standards for electric cars to work with smart grids.

The US centre, for example, will help to develop standard rules for wireless charging systems and is working on a small, low-cost device to measure charge energy. During 2014, sister centres will be opened at the JRC sites in Petten, The Netherlands, and at Ispra, Italy.

If the centres can help make standards the same across the world, they will also reduce trade barriers, according to Isaacs.

The joint initiative is a game-changer in other ways. The EU and US are currently in the throes of negotiations over an ambitious trade and investment agreement known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – aiming at removing trade barriers such as tariffs, unnecessary regulations and restrictions on investment in a wide range of economic sectors so as to make it easier to buy and sell goods and services between the EU and the US.

In the context of these negotiations, the work of the new centres will be keenly watched to gauge the prospects for significant technological harmonisation across the world’s two biggest economies.

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