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Battle for India's EV charging standard swings in Europe's favor

Japanese and Chinese makers set to face disadvantage as market takes off

Charging points accommodating multiple systems are commonplace in Europe, but would be too costly to install in India.   © Getty Images

TOKYO -- With the Indian market for electric vehicles poised to take off, a battle is raging behind the scenes among companies vying to establish a nationwide standard charging system.

The Indian government released a draft report in March singling out Combo, the EV fast charging method favored by European manufacturers, as a proposed national standard for direct-current chargers with a voltage of 100 or more.

The development is a setback for Japanese and Chinese makers, which use CHAdeMO and GB/T systems, respectively.

The country plans to make 30% of the cars on its roads EVs by 2030, and the decision on which system the country adopts will have a significant impact on makers' ability to establish themselves in the market, and a knock-on effect on their global expansion plans.

This has "dealt a blow," said Makoto Yoshida, the CHAdeMO Association's secretary-general.

The CHAdeMO charging system has been established as the standard among Japanese automakers.

The report does not entail a formal adoption of the Combo standard. It will be possible, for example, for private sector operators to install CHAdeMO fast chargers of their own accord. But it has put companies that use the system at a disadvantage.

Japanese automaker Suzuki Motor's Indian subsidiary Maruti Suzuki India holds a roughly 50% share of the passenger car market in the world's second-most populous country.

The company is set to launch an EV in the Indian market in partnership with Toyota Motor around 2020 and the two also plan to cooperate on the development of charging stations.

Suzuki has expressed support for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "Make in India" initiative, which is aimed at promoting the country's manufacturing sector. This has left many wondering why the Indian government appears to be favoring the European system.

"I think it is a move with an eye on exporting EVs to Europe," said an executive at an automaker.

Indian company Tata Motors is the parent of British manufacturer Jaguar Land Rover.  

The executive said that the Indian government may be seeking to help Tata and local rival Mahindra & Mahindra export EVs to Europe as part of a national policy of prioritizing the region's market. 

Charging points equipped with both CHAdeMO and Combo sockets are already widespread in the European market. However, installing multiple systems at every point comes at a considerable cost.

This would be unrealistic in an emerging market like India, where there is a desire to minimize the costs of charging infrastructure development.

The Indian government also "fears an influx of EVs from China," said another person familiar with the matter, and has therefore "excluded GB/T and CHAdeMO," as the Chinese and Japanese standards are, to a certain extent, compatible with each other.

CHAdeMO and Combo differ both in terms of the shape of the plug they use and the communication method between the charger and the vehicle. The Japanese standard uses the CAN method, while its European counterpart uses PLC.

The CHAdeMO and Combo systems differ both in terms of the shape of the plug and the communication method they use.   © Getty Images

Some observers, however, argue that even if the Indian government does formally adopt Combo as a nationwide standard, Suzuki and Toyota will not be put at a significant disadvantage as they have yet to market an electric vehicle in the country.

Yet, if India were to adopt CHAdeMO, it would clear the way for the two companies to expand their EV operations globally, without having to produce vehicles with different communication methods.

Yoshida said that the CHAdeMO Association would continue to pitch the Japanese standard to the Indian government, touting its safety and widespread use. There have been no serious accidents since chargers using the system started being installed.

According to one estimate, new auto sales in India, including gasoline vehicles, will exceed those in Japan in 2020 and the country will become the world's third-largest auto market. 

European carmakers have increasingly lobbied the Indian government to adopt their fast charging standard, according to Yoshida.

The momentum may have shifted in favor of the European system, but the battle to win over the Indian government is far from over.  

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