VHS Versus Beta Is A Poor Analogy For EV Charging
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VHS Versus Beta Is A Poor Analogy For EV Charging

Nov 20, 2023



On the surface, the argument seems pretty solid. Over the years, there have been format wars. The widths between wagon wheels on ancient roads needed to be pretty close to each other, or the ruts they cut would make travel difficult or impossible. Later, railroad tracks needed to be laid a standard width apart, for similar reasons. DC power once competed with AC power (with Thomas Edison famously electrocuting loose dogs, an elephant, and one person to discredit AC). Records, cassette tapes, and digital data storage media have all competed, too.

The most famous format war seems to be the competition for home video supremacy between VHS and Betamax (often called Beta for short in common conversation, which is how I’ll continue to refer to it in this article). No VCR supported both types of tapes, and the expense of producing both types was too high to justify. Ultimately, it came down to the length of video, and VHS was the only tape that could fit a whole movie, despite lower quality and other ways in which it was inferior to Beta. Plus, it's said that more porn was available on VHS, which certainly wouldn't have helped Beta compete.

Given that we’ve got two competing things (with CHAdeMO being a distant third), it looks a lot like a format war. So, it's not surprising that people all over social media and even here at CleanTechnica would compare this competition to VHS and Beta.

Like all good format wars, there are people on both sides who would like to see their favorite horse win. There are, of course, the Tesla owners, fans, investors, and cheerleaders who want to see the Tesla plug at every charging station. There are good reasons for liking the plug, as it's smaller, may be more reliable than CCS1, and it's the plug most EVs charge with (because Tesla has made so many EVs while the other manufacturers are only getting started). With Ford's announcement, it seems inevitable to many people that the "NACS" format will win.

These facts and opinions don't mean there are people who disagree. CharIN, the organization behind CCS (both 1 and 2), says that CCS is already the global standard, and that the industry needs to adopt it fully instead of Tesla's plug. Like the Tesla fans and stans, they’re also against adapters and have a number of excuses for opposing them (charging experience, weight, reliability, etc).

Looking back at other format wars, there's one big thing missing: adapters.

If you wanted to watch Beta tapes, you needed a Beta player. If you wanted a VHS movie to play on your fishbowl TV, you had to have a VHS player. There were no adapters to put a VHS cassette into a Beta player, nor did the opposite exist. The only thing I can think of that was even remotely like an adapter was for S-VHS tapes (tiny tapes for compact camcorders) to be played in a regular VHS VCR. The only way to get a VCR that could play both would be to duct tape a VHS VCR to one that played Beta tapes.

Going further back, every other format war had fundamental physical reasons that you couldn't shoehorn one format into the place of the other. Some ancient cart paths near borders might have had three ruts that wagons of different widths could go down, but the one that got used less would have a much deeper rut on one side, making things difficult at best. Railroads? Let's just say that a three-track system is 50% more expensive to build and maintain, with one rail getting used twice as much as the other rails, and that's before you consider the complex or impossible designs that you’d need for switching and crossings. So, these dual gauge tracks are only used rarely.

The same is true of AC and DC power. DC power generally doesn't work great over long, long wires, so it's tough to build a power grid that supports both. Thus, one format had to win over the other. The same is true for other things, like voltages, with expensive adapters and inverters needed to use a device in one country in another that uses different voltages, or to power AC devices from a DC battery. So, one standard ends up winning out over another.

But, DC fast charging isn't all that different between Tesla plugs and CCS plugs, or even CHAdeMO plugs. The basic idea of using DC power to charge a car's battery pack directly at high amperage is fundamentally the same across all EVs, with the physical plug and maybe some low-voltage communication protocols differing from connector to connector. Thus, the differences between fast charging standards are only skin deep and don't go to the bone the way VHS vs Beta, railroad/wagon gauges, and AC vs DC are.

The biggest proof that we aren't in a real format war is that adapters between the charging standards already exist, and often at fairly affordable prices. Tesla has, for some time, sold a CCS1-to-Tesla adapter, and as of this writing, it's available for $175. The opposite is also true, but not in commercial form yet. Tesla wants to get its hands in the Infrastructure Bill cookie jar, so it is working with some states to add CCS charging to Supercharger sites via Magic Dock, an adapter that gets stuck to the end of the Tesla/NACS port so it can't be stolen easily.

CHAdeMO adapters for Tesla have been available for a long time, but CHAdeMO to CCS and vice versa has made a lot less sense, as most CHAdeMO stations today already have a CCS plug. But, I’m sure CHAdeMO drivers would like to access CCS charging. There's also EVgo's offering of Tesla charging via an adapter that's permanently affixed to the side of the station (which, like Magic Dock, is meant to prevent theft).

There's also very little keeping a company like Chargepoint, Electrify America, or EVgo from offering Tesla charging without the adapter. It may sound clunky to people used to pulling up to just one plug per station for a company to offer two or three different plugs, but we have to remember that gas pumps have offered multiple gasoline grades as well as diesel for decades, often with two or more pump handles that aren't compatible with each other.

I don't ever remember anybody saying that diesel and gasoline were in a format war, or that there's a war between regular, mid-grade, and premium. All of these different fuel grades require a lot of fuel-specific upstream infrastructure (refining, delivery, etc) that EV charging avoids entirely (unless there are premium electrons I don't know about). So, it stands to reason that multiple plugs at charging stations is a perfectly plausible future outcome, even if it would bother people who think minimalism is a religion.

Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero.She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids.You can find her on Twitter here,Facebook here, andYouTube here.

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