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Navigating Electric Vehicle Charging: A Guide to What You Need to Know

With a push from Congress, automakers and charging companies are planning to install tens of thousands of fast chargers on American highways capable of refueling electric cars in half an hour or less.

That’s good news for anyone who owns an electric car or is thinking about buying one. But it’s also confusing because of a debate about what kind of plugs those new chargers and cars will use now and in the future.

Ford Motor, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz and other automakers plan to abandon the plugs their electric cars use today for those designed by Tesla. But they won’t begin selling cars with the Tesla plugs until 2025.

Until then, cars like the Ford Mustang Mach-E or Chevrolet Bolt will come with technology that may eventually become obsolete, the equivalent of Betamax videocassette recorders.

There are two main kinds of plugs. The most widely used was developed by Tesla, which dominates the electric car business, and, so far, works only with the company’s cars. It’s known as the North American Charging Standard.

Cars made by most other manufacturers use a plug known as the Combined Charging System. Any electric car charger that is funded in part by the federal government under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has to be able to charge cars that use the CCS plug.

Many established automakers are switching from CCS to the North American plug, which will allow their owners to use a portion of Tesla’s network of fast chargers — 12,000 — and feel more confident about finding a place to refuel. Tesla has roughly 20,000 fast chargers in the United States, or about two-thirds of such chargers.

The established manufacturers will offer adapters that allow Tesla chargers to deliver power to cars with CCS receptacles in early 2024. Then, in 2025, new cars sold by the automakers will use Tesla plugs without adapters.

With so many big automakers switching to the Tesla standard, CCS’s days might be numbered in the United States. Of course, cars built for CCS plugs will stay on the road for years, which means that charging stations will need adapters or offer both kinds of plugs for the foreseeable future.

Established carmakers are switching to Tesla’s system mainly because it is more widespread than what they are using today and appears to work better.

Tesla’s charging network is often found in locations that don’t have CCS chargers. Many auto experts and drivers also say Tesla chargers are more reliable, and the company’s plug is smaller, lighter and easier to handle than the CCS plug.

In addition, Tesla has designed its system so that drivers can plug into one of its chargers and walk away. The chargers recognize each Tesla car and bill its owner’s credit card automatically.

The performance of the charging networks operated by other companies is notoriously uneven. Charging procedures vary. Some chargers require drivers to plug in and then open an app on their phones. Others want customers to open an app first. Some chargers accept credit cards, but others don’t.

Drivers of electric cars that are not Teslas often complain about broken or finnicky chargers — complaints validated by independent studies.

It matters a lot.

Perhaps Tesla’s biggest advantage is that it has been at this for a long time. It has secured choice locations at popular shopping centers and along busy highways.

As a result, newer charging companies are often at a disadvantage. Many of them have had to place some chargers in areas that lack restrooms or restaurants. Stopping at some chargers, in empty parking lots, can feel unsafe.

In July, BMW, G.M., Honda and four other automakers announced that they would jointly install 30,000 chargers in the United States and Canada. These chargers will have both plugs.

Yes, these plugs can charge any electric car, including Teslas if drivers are carrying adapters, which often come with their cars.

But the reverse is not true — the vast majority of Tesla chargers can charge only Teslas. Elon Musk, the Tesla chief executive, said in February that he intended to open his company’s charging network to cars made by other automakers. As of late August, only about a dozen of the company’s U.S. charging stations, all in California, New York or Texas, were available to other cars.

CCS technology is not dominated by one company. While Tesla has promised to hand oversight of its plug to an independent body, the company and Mr. Musk have often been confrontational when dealing with other businesses and government agencies. That’s why some auto experts believe that established automakers could regret relying on Tesla.

While charging companies that offer CCS plugs have struggled to offer reliable and easy-to-use services, there are many of them. Several, including EVgo and Electrify America, operate nationwide and compete with one another on price and service. Tesla is more insulated from competition, though that will change as more companies offer chargers with the plugs its cars use.

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