US gov’t may update EV charger subsidy rules for newly-certified NACS port

The Federal Highway Administration announced today that it will seek feedback on how government rules should be updated to account for the new NACS/J3400 charging standard, potentially unlocking $7.5 billion in federal subsidies for the Tesla-developed charging connector.

As part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the US government has allocated $7.5 billion in subsidies to expand EV charging access. $5 billion of that is through the NEVI program, which is intended to install a nationwide backbone of fast chargers at least every 50 miles along America’s major roads in order to make EV road trips seamless.

But one requirement of that law was that the chargers installed must be accessible by multiple brands of electric cars – standard, not proprietary. This requirement is obviously reasonable, but it also seemed targeted at Tesla, a company that had built its own Supercharger network only accessible by Tesla vehicles.

In response to this, Tesla released specifications of its charging connector, which it called the “North American Charging Standard.” This was somewhat of an absurd name at the time, given that Tesla was the only company using it.

However, since Tesla is a majority of the US EV market, Tesla argued that most of the cars and most of the DC charging stations in America already used Tesla’s connector, so it should be considered a de facto standard anyway.

For a few months, not many people took this seriously. However, Ford shook up the industry by announcing it would adopt the NACS plug on upcoming vehicles. Soon after, GM made the same move, and now basically everyone else has – including one of the last holdouts, Volkswagen, as of today.

But even after momentum was apparent, the White House threw cold water on NACS’ victory, reminding everyone that there are still “minimum standards” within federal charger subsidy rules and that it would have to examine how NACS fulfills those standards to ensure that the charging network stays accessible and interoperable. A standard isn’t a standard just because one company says it is – it has to be treated like a standard with independent control and verification.

As of today, any DC chargers installed with federal money can have NACS connectors but must also include CCS connectors.

This led SAE, the professional engineering organization that develops industry standards, to take up the flag of creating a real, independent standard that is no longer in the hands of Tesla, and Tesla obliged by allowing SAE to have control over the process of standardization.

The government will examine how to take advantage of the new SAE NACS/J3400 standard

Today, now that SAE has officially published its report on the J3400 charging standard (J3400 is SAE’s name for NACS), the government has simultaneously announced that it wants to re-examine its minimum standards in light of the new certification.

We covered how the new SAE/NACS standard will solve (basically) every charging problem in one fell swoop last week. (Click through to learn more about that. I promise it’s more interesting than an article about competing charging standards seems like it would be.)

Today’s press release from the Federal Highway Administration announces that it “will soon publish a Request for Information (RFI) to solicit feedback from stakeholders on updating FHWA’s minimum standards and requirements for electric vehicle (EV) charging stations to allow for new technology and continued innovation.”

It also specifically calls out the news of the day, name-dropping Tesla and NACS as the reason for this call to update the government’s minimum standards:

With the implementation of J3400 TM, a new standard for charging EVs published by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), any supplier or manufacturer will now be able to use and deploy the Tesla-developed North America Charging Standard (NACS) connector, which a majority of automakers have announced they will adopt on vehicles beginning in 2025 with adaptors available for current owners as soon as next spring.

In addition to that, the Biden Administration and the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation (which worked with SAE to develop the J3400 standard) put out a press release today applauding the new standard, celebrating how quickly the process was finished, and pointing to its potential future inclusion in the FHWA’s requirements.

Electrek’s Take

Firstly, I’d like to make note of the issue that many Tesla fans had for a while about the White House not properly acknowledging Tesla. I always thought this was silly, more of a reflection of the massive chip on the shoulder of the egomaniac who is the titular head of the company in question than of actual reality.

When the Biden administration said, “Hold up, not so fast,” early in the NACS process, it made many think that Biden was once again slighting Tesla, but today’s news, I think, shows that that was never the case. The government simply wanted it to be a proper standard, and now it is (and that process went really fast). On the same day that it became a proper standard, the government announced that it was ready to treat it like one. That all seems fair to me.

While we don’t yet know what the minimum standards will change to, it seems clear that this is an effort to update them to coalesce around NACS. This is great news because charging will only get better when everyone just rips the bandage off and goes with one charging standard – and a more robust one than J1772, at that.

But this leads to the question: will the government fully embrace NACS, thus potentially leaving some of the installed base of CCS-enabled cars out of luck in the longer term? Or will it hamstring deployment to some extent, requiring CCS (which is effectively now a dead standard) and therefore not fully taking advantage of the NACS standard’s myriad solutions to charging problems?

But as I stated in that last article, this decision point is also a little ironic, considering NACS’ existence seems to have been spurred on by NEVI in the first place. When the government offered billions of dollars to companies that installed chargers with the requirement that those chargers be useable with multiple vehicles, that’s what got Tesla to finally offer a “standard.”

At the time, it wasn’t really a standard because only Tesla was using it, and it was somewhat of a last-ditch effort to save the Tesla connector. Then, when Ford decided to use NACS, that’s what started all the other dominoes falling.

Now, NACS is dominant, but it only happened because of NEVI in the first place – and NEVI now has the difficult decision over whether to embrace the (positive) situation it caused, even if it will give some of the installed base an effective “use-by” date as a shift to NACS will inevitably mean fewer CCS/J1772 chargers over time.

We wish that all of this would have been figured out long ago so we could be done with it by now, but it looks like the solution to all our charging problems is finally nearly at hand.

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