What fax machines teach us about electric cars

Oh, god. Image: Getty.

Imagine if you could gas up your GM car only at GM gas stations. Or if you had to find a gas station servicing cars made from 2005 to 2012 to fill up your 2011 vehicle. It would be inconvenient and frustrating, right? This is the problem electric vehicle owners face every day when trying to recharge their cars. The industry’s failure, so far, to create a universal charging system demonstrates why setting standards is so important – and so difficult. The Conversation

When done right, standards can both be invisible and make our lives immeasurably easier and simpler. Any brand of toaster can plug into any electric outlet. Pulling up to a gas station, you can be confident that the pump’s filler gun will fit into your car’s fuel tank opening. When there are competing standards, users become afraid of choosing an obsolete or “losing” technology.

Most standards, like electrical plugs, are so simple we don’t even really notice them. And yet the stakes are high: Poor standards won’t be widely adopted, defeating the purpose of standardisation in the first place. Good standards, by contrast, will ensure compatibility among competing firms and evolve as technology advances.

My own research into the history of fax machines illustrates this well, and provides a useful analogy for today’s development of electric cars. In the 1960s and 1970s, two poor standards for faxing resulted in a small market filled with machines that could not communicate with each other. In 1980, however, a new standard sparked two decades of rapid growth grounded in compatible machines built by competing manufacturers who battled for a share of an increasing market. Consumers benefited from better fax machines that seamlessly worked with each other, vastly expanding their utility.

At present, there is not a single standard for plugs to recharge electric vehicles. That means that people who drive electric cars can’t rely on refueling at any of a wide range of nearly ubiquitous stations on street corners the way gas-vehicle drivers can. This creates an additional barrier, slowing the adoption of electric cars unnecessarily. Several potential standards are competing in the marketplace now; as we saw with fax systems, the sooner one standard becomes dominant, the sooner the electric vehicle market will take off.

Making a new standard

The two basic approaches to creating standards involve letting the market decide or forging a consensus among participants. Both have benefits and risks. A free-market approach often splits a young market into several competing and incompatible systems. Believing in their technical or commercial superiority, firms gamble that they will create de facto standards by dominating the market.

In reality, as my research into the first two attempts at standards for fax machines in the 1960s and 1970s showed, competing incompatible equipment can slow the growth of an entire market. In the case of the fax, poorly written standards attempted to codify into common use certain fax machine manufacturers’ methods for connecting two machines and sending information between them. As a result, many firms sold machines that could not work with other companies’ devices. Some manufacturers even deliberately made their machines incompatible to lock their customers into their equipment.

No single firm dominated the marketplace, and nobody agreed to use a single common standard. As a result, the fax world consisted of several smaller self-contained markets, not one larger market. And many potential users didn’t use faxes at all, preferring to wait until an obvious winning standard emerged.


Third time’s the charm

Crowning that winner can take many years. So can creating standards by consensus. In the meantime, the spread of fax technology stagnated.

But then a force outside the marketplace began to call for a real fax standard. In 1977, the Japanese government pushed competing Japanese firms and telephone corporations to cooperate and create one standard. The government then convinced the International Telecommunications Union to adopt this as the worldwide standard in 1980. What ensued was the fax boom of the 1980s and 1990s.

This standard found two keys to its success. First, it was royalty-free, meaning any company could adhere to the standard without paying a fee to its creators. (A similar approach decades earlier proved essential for the adoption of standard dimensions for shipping containers.) The Japanese officials and companies calculated that the profits from a larger market would more than compensate for any lost income from the lack of licensing fees.

A modern fax machine. Image: Johnny T/Wikimedia Commons.

Second, the standard was not so restrictive as to prevent fax machine manufacturers from introducing other features – such as faster transmission. That allowed companies to compete on more than just price. The result was a continued flow of new, more capable and cheaper machines that attracted new users.

The need for a standard for electric cars

Successfully commercialising electric vehicles will similarly depend on the development, acceptance and implementation of standards. So far, just as happened with fax machines, incompatible chargers have slowed the spread of electric cars.

Depending on the type of car and its age, it may have one of four incompatible chargers. If the charging station you pull up to lacks the appropriate charger for your car, you are out of luck.

People considering buying electric cars already worry about how far they could travel between recharge stops. Then they realise that they can’t use just any charging station, the way a gasoline-powered vehicle can use any gas station. That doesn’t relieve their concerns and dampens sales of electric vehicles.


Developing a standard

Like fax machines, electric vehicles’ incompatibility reflected both evolving technology and groups of manufacturers promoting their own systems in hopes of dominating the marketplace. Already, the first generation of chargers is essentially obsolete because they take so long to recharge a car battery.

The real battle is among the three incompatible fast charging systems available in the United States: the Japanese CHAdeMO, the European-American CCS and Tesla Supercharger. (China is developing its own standard.)

CHAdeMO works only with Japanese and Korean vehicles like the Nissan LEAF and Kia Soul. CCS works only with European and American cars like the BMW i3 and Chevy Spark. The third system, Tesla’s Supercharger, works only with Tesla’s own cars. Tesla sells its customers a $450 adapter to use a CHAdeMO charger but does not offer adapters that would let CHAdeMO or CCS vehicles use Tesla charging stations.

The end of the battle?

This three-way split is changing. In the last few years, Tesla has veered from its initial exclusivity to cooperation. In 2014, Tesla announced it would share its patents royalty-free – including its charger and plug designs – to encourage the spread of electric vehicle technology. In 2015, the company agreed to make its cars and charging stations compatible with China’s new standard, possibly by using adapters at charging stations.

And in 2016, Tesla joined CharIN, an industry group promoting the CCS standard. That raised the tempting possibility that the company might allow CCS charging at Tesla stations, probably by providing adapters. It also threw Tesla’s significant support behind an effort to create a new standard for even faster charging. This could lead CCS to market dominance, effectively establishing a standard by out-competing CHAdeMO.

Fax machines needed three generations of standards before real compatibility emerged, thanks to Japanese government pressure to cooperate. For electric vehicles, Telsa’s embrace of CharIN may provide that needed pressure. The real winner would be the cause of electric vehicles.

Jonathan Coopersmith is professor of history at Texas A&M University .

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Brexit is an opportunity for cities to take back control

Leeds Town Hall. Image: Getty.

The Labour leader of Leeds City Council on the future of Britain’s cities.

As the negotiations about the shape of the UK’s exit from the EU continue, Britain’s most economically powerful cities outside London are arguing that the UK can be made stronger for Brexit – by allowing cities to “take back control” of service provision though new powers and freedoms

Core Cites UK, the representative voice of the cities at the centre of the ten largest economic areas outside London, has just launched an updated version of our green paper, ‘Invest Reform Trust’. The document calls for radical but deliverable proposals to allow cities to prepare for Brexit by boosting their productivity, and helping to rebalance the economy by supporting inclusive economic growth across the UK.

Despite representing areas responsible for a quarter of the UK’s economy and nearly a third of exports, city leaders have played little part in the development of the government’s approach to Brexit. Cities want a dialogue with the government on their Brexit plans and a new settlement which sees power passing from central government to local communities.

To help us deliver a Brexit that works for the UK’s cities, we are opening a dialogue with the EU Commission’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier to share our views of the Brexit process and what our cities want to achieve.

Most of the changes the Core Cities want to see can already be delivered by the UK. To address the fact that the productivity of UK cities lags behind competitors, we need to think differently and begin to address the structural problems in our economy before Brexit.

International evidence shows that cities which have the most control over taxes raised in their area tend to be the most productive.  The UK is significantly out of step with international competitors in the power given to cities and we are one of the most centralised countries in the world.  


Boosting the productivity of the UK’s Core Cities to the UK national average would increase the country’s national income by £70-£90bn a year. This would be a critical boost to the UK’s post-Brexit economic success.

Our green paper is clear that one-size fits all policy solutions simply can’t deal with the complexities of 21st century Britain. We need a place-based approach that looks at challenges and solutions in a different way, focused on the particular needs of local communities and local economies.

For example, our Core Cities face levels of unemployment higher than the national average, but also face shortages of skilled workers.  We need a more localised approach to skills, education and employment support with greater involvement from local democratic and business leaderships to deliver the skills to support growth in each area.

The UK will only make a success of Brexit if we are able to increase our international trade. Evidence shows city to city networks play an important role in boosting international trade.  The green paper calls for a new partnership with the Department of International trade to develop an Urban Trade programme across the UK’s cities and give cities more of a role in international trade missions.

To deliver economic growth that includes all areas of the UK, we also need to invest in our infrastructure. Not just our physical infrastructure of roads, rail telecommunications and so forth, but also our health, education and care infrastructure, ensuring that we are able to unlock the potential of our core assets, our people.

Whether you think that Brexit is a positive or a negative thing for the UK, it is clear that the process will be a challenging one.  Cities have a key role to play in delivering a good Brexit: one that sees local communities empowered and economic prosperity across all areas of the UK.

Cllr Judith Blake is leader of Leeds City Council.