The Future of Electric Cars Hinges on a Dongle

Take a road trip in an electric car, and you’ll quickly realize that gas stations are incredible. Nothing in the world of EVs is as fast and easy as checking highway signs for the nearest Shell or BP, filling up your tank in just a few minutes, and getting on with your day. It’s not just that chargers are still hard to find. They can be dreadfully slow, adding as little as 25 miles of battery life every hour. Plenty of faster ones exist, yes, but there is no guarantee that they will work. A long-distance drive in an EV still requires a lot of planning and a lot of luck.

But if you drive a Tesla, the experience is better. The company’s Superchargers are speedy—adding up to 200 miles of charge in just 15 minutes—and simple to use. Set up an account with Tesla and charging initiates automatically after plugging in. There’s no fumbling with screens or swiping a credit card. Superchargers consistently clock in as the most reliable EV chargers in the U.S.

Even though Tesla Superchargers make up nearly three-quarters of America’s fast chargers, most non-Tesla EV drivers have had to look for a plug elsewhere. That’s because Tesla’s cars use their own proprietary charging port, similar to how the Lightning Connector is only for Apple products. But in recent months, Tesla has opened up its Superchargers to cars from Ford and Rivian. With a brick-size charging adapter, drivers can plug into more chargers than ever before, alleviating one of the biggest challenges to owning an EV. Many more automakers may soon get Supercharger access and adapters, but that has gotten complicated by Tesla’s shocking and sudden decision to fire its entire Supercharger team last week. So much about the adoption of electric vehicles in America now hangs on a dongle.

Tesla isn’t opening up its Superchargers out of the goodness of Elon Musk’s heart. In 2021, Tesla’s charging port seemed doomed: To encourage standardization, the federal government had decided to subsidize charging stations with the Combined Charging System (CCS) connector used by other automakers. The company responded by open-sourcing its connector—which it renamed the North American Charging Standard, or NACS for short—and struck a deal with the government to make its chargers accessible to other automakers. Since then, nearly every major automaker has announced that they’ll build the NACS port into future vehicles, including Ford, Rivian, GM, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Kia, Volvo, BMW, Nissan, and Jeep. (That’s not even the full list.) Tesla’s North American Charging Standard has functionally become exactly that: the new charging standard for America’s EVs. Tesla has received billions of dollars in federal funding to rapidly build more Superchargers—promising to double the number by the end of the year—and could bring in billions more from Supercharger fees.

Although the first non-Tesla cars with the NACS port won’t come out until next year or later, adapters are the linchpins that give most of the EVs already on the road access to the Supercharger revolution. Currently made by Tesla directly, these dongles are more complicated than the converters you’ve used with your phone or other devices. They have to safely handle kilowatts of power while not overheating, work in extreme weather, and perhaps most important of all, coordinate the software “handshake” between the vehicle and Tesla chargers. That last element requires an exchange of information among Tesla, other carmakers, the electric grid, and the consumer—allowing for seamless charging and billing.

Because of the intricacies of this software handshake, Tesla is expanding Supercharger access to other carmakers one at a time; Ford was first, in late February, and then Rivian followed in March. Although both of these companies are letting customers reserve a dongle for free, at least temporarily, the dongles are so sought-after that the supply has struggled to keep up. Ford declined to give specifics on demand for its dongle, but a spokesperson for Rivian told me that it has seen an opt-in rate above 90 percent for the free adapters. However, the company wouldn’t share specifics on how many adapters it has shipped.

The adapters, like any technology, are not perfect: Software glitches have led some drivers to get the dreaded “red ring of death,” and non-Tesla cars might not necessarily be able to charge as quickly. But mostly the dongles are working as promised. Once non-Tesla owners receive the updated software in their cars, they can attach the dongle to the Supercharger cable, plug it in, and voilà. For that reason, other carmakers are eager to follow Ford and Rivian and offer adapters later this year, or early next.

The promise of these adapters is undeniable: One of the biggest things holding EVs back is charging anxiety, Jeremy Michalek, an EV expert at Carnegie Mellon University, told me. Many new EVs can now go 300 miles or more on a single charge—more than sufficient for daily or even weekly driving—but the public chargers are still nowhere near good enough. An adapter “takes away one of the big logistical problems with trying to figure out where to charge,” he said, simply because it opens up the chargers that already exist. Adaptors could also help boost EV sales at a time when they have stagnated, reassuring Americans that they can make that five-hour road trip to see relatives without running out of battery along the way.

Like anything with Tesla, however, it’s not nearly that simple. NACS adoption has gone from a success story for electric cars to a monkey wrench in the EV future. Last week, Musk laid off Tesla’s 500-person Supercharger team, a baffling, inexplicable move considering how central charging has become to the company. On his social platform, X, Musk posted that Tesla will grow the Supercharger network “at a slower pace.” Ford and Rivian reportedly are now in the dark, having lost their main contacts at the company. The layoffs might already be slowing down the dongles: Unhappy Ford-EV owners have taken to Reddit to discuss delays in adapter delivery, as first reported by The Verge. Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

The rollout of these adapters is poised to be an early test of how much Tesla is willing to continue to invest in charging at all. At worst, the layoffs suggest that now that Tesla has won the charging-plug wars, Musk is abandoning the mission as he seeks to pivot the company around AI. “Cutting all of the Supercharger staff means that Tesla won’t have anyone left to develop the software updates and ensure interoperability with non-Tesla vehicles,” Sam Abuelsamid, the principal e-mobility research analyst at Guidehouse Insights, told me. “Over time, it may lead to reduced reliability of the existing chargers and adapters.”

There is no going back from NACS. Regardless of what Tesla does with its charging network, the connector has been standardized so that any charging company, such as Electrify America and ChargePoint, can use it in its own stations. And unlike other connectors, NACS supports the same voltage as the street lights and utility poles all over the country. This is already in practice in European cities such as Amsterdam, London, and Paris, where you can plug your EV into lamp-post charging ports. In the U.S., such chargers would make EV ownership more accessible for people who live in apartment buildings, and can’t reliably charge overnight in private garages.

In the long run, the transition to the NACS standard could also help make EVs more affordable—still the biggest barrier to widespread EV adoption. “If we can get consumers comfortable with the idea that there’s charging everywhere,” Abuelsamid said, “automakers can start to build EVs with smaller batteries”—which would mean cheaper electric cars.

But that is still well into the future. For now, every gas-burning car purchased could spew  planet-warming emissions for the next decade-plus. While the country works to turn its 10,000 fast-charging stations into a more expansive network that could replace 150,000 gas stations, dongles are a key step along the way. If Tesla’s layoffs materially slow the rollout of these adapters and the future of electrification, no one wins.


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