Nothing Is Lost In Translation

„When your EV talks to our charger, we ensure nothing is lost in translation." Dr. Susanne Koblitz, Head of Charging Technology at IONITY, explains why interoperability is the technological grammar that ensures a reliable EV charging experience.

Dr. Susanne Koblitz, 
Head of Charging Technology, IONITY

I is for Interoperability

Language, at its most basic level, facilitates any and all kinds of understanding between people. Our expectations, desires, hopes and thoughts need the right words which need to be expressed and understood in the right way, to establish flawless communication between each other. This is equally true for modern machines. And when they find a way of being compatible with each other, regardless of who made them, this desired state is called interoperability - a fancy word that describes the fluency with which technological devices converse with each other with zero room for misunderstanding.

Interoperability and IONITY

While battery technology is nothing new and interoperability is as old as the first computer, the latest challenge is interoperability in the context of the IONITY charging architecture. The first piece of this puzzle is the CCS (Combined Charging System) which unifies the physical interface between EV's and IONITY. Next comes the software itself. While all EV's speak the same official language, each one has its own dialect and nuances which must be learnt by the IONITY system. Now that’s a full-time job for even the most seasoned linguist!
Someone who takes that job very seriously is Dr. Susanne Koblitz, Head of Charging Technology at IONITY. In this revealing interview, we ask Susanne about the nature and scope of the interoperability challenges IONITY faces every day.

What is the most crucial aspect of your role as the Head of Charging Technology, at IONITY?

Making sure that charging stations and EV's work together in harmony so our customers needn’t worry about anything. That’s about 80 percent of my work. Then there are finer nuances that are also my responsibility. Things like timings (how long does a customer have to wait for the charging session to start), voltage levels, tolerances for the connector to really fit perfectly in the inlet (CCS into the EV has to be the right fit). These are small details that can make a big difference. I make sure the hardware works and that it does what is needed and then check with the suppliers if it can be delivered and, if not, develop the hardware with them so they can fulfill our requirements. These requirements, of course, are always defined by customer needs.

That’s quite a tall task. How do you keep tabs on everything?

Not alone, of course! We are six full-time employees in the hardware team, including myself. Two of us focus on EV testing. One is in charge of managing suppliers, another on the back-end communication and a third colleague takes care of sanitization and understanding charging systems as a whole and how EV's and charging stations work together. Half of our team focusses solely on interoperability topics and charging stations themselves. Indeed, none of our efforts would bear fruit if it weren’t for our colleagues in the Operations and IT department, with whom we collaborate intensely.

Interoperability seems to be the buzzword these days when it comes to EV charging infrastructure. Why is that?

Because in EV charging there are so many new interfaces that need to really make it work and the industry learned the hard way that interoperability needs to be fully established. We have the obvious interface between the car and the charging station. But our back end also talks, in real-time, with other systems like the MSP providers. All these networks need to be in sync to prevent any information lag.

"The industry learned the hard way that interoperability needs to be fully established."

So is it fair to say you require technology translators who must constantly update their own skills to speak constantly updating languages?

To a certain degree that is what we are doing. We have tools that do exactly that – they eavesdrop on the conversation between the EV and charging station. They’re called sniffers and they identify where the problems could lie. These tools need to be adapted on a regular basis to align with set standards that are updated every three or four years. Sniffers are an additional physical tool. We put them in by adding a connection piece between the charging cable and inlet or by the actual sniffing device looped around the charging cable. It’s a physical gadget that listens in on the communication, on those different dialects, and comes with a dedicated software that translates the messages for us.

Wouldn’t interoperability benefit from a single charger across brands?

It’s not the products themselves, but the charging standards where the difference lies and to some extent we are still at the point of defining which charging standard and which technology will dominate the market. The European CCS, Japanese ChaDEmo and the Chinese have their own adaptation which started out by following some of the European development and then continued on their own. They still have some CCS communication parts and European connector parts included in their system. The EV community has been criticized for having these multiple standards for AC / DC charging but what happened was that the Japanese and European developers were both simultaneously working on developing a dedicated single interface without knowing it. By the time they realized it was too late to go back and universalize it because they were both being used everywhere! So, you have two main charging standard competitors with completely different connectors, software and charging functionalities. CCS is the widely adopted standard in Europe. And since our ambition, right from the start, was to establish a network with the deepest reach, we embraced the CCS standard and helped further its cause.

Could you give us a more recent example of how interoperability has played a crucial role in a key technology?

USB, floppy drives, DVDs — basically any kind of storage media has had interoperability challenges. And when they’re established and robust, the impact they can have is tremendous. For example, when USB sticks were introduced, they were not reliable in the beginning. Whether it was the formatting, timing, different indexing of files etc, it often didn’t work flawlessly, but all of this has now been resolved and the USB story is a success story. Now it’s the standard connection for electronic devices like cameras, keyboards, mice and mobile phones. EV interoperability is at a similar crossroad. Right now, we are at those beginning stages where you weren’t sure if USB would work. The current reality and reliability of USBs is our long-term ambition with regards to interoperability for EVs.

Back to EV's, at what stage does interoperability kick in during the charging process?

The moment the customer plugs the connector in the inlet. That’s when the first interoperability question is being asked and it’s also an important one that we hear about from our customers often. It’s the one with the connector. For the charger to be safe, the vehicle has to lock the charger to the vehicle’s inlet. The vehicle has a small pin that has to be introduced to the connector to hold it into the EV. This is usually at the top or on the side. Now, if the connector has too much leeway in the inlet, is slanted or not in the right direction, the pin won’t fit. It can hit the wall of the connector instead of the hole and the charging won’t commence. Not many customers are aware of this. So we tell them to hold the connector in the inlet until they hear the noise of the motor moving the pin to the right place — something one can get used to. It’s a challenge, in particular because of heavy cables that sometimes pull on the connectors— it creates some extra tension on something that has a small diameter (half a cm or 3mm) — the car is basically trying to thread a needle!

Interoperability begins here –   "Plug and Charge" at IONITY

Besides the charger and EV, are there any other points where interoperability is crucial to the charging experience?

Yes. A key interoperability point is between the payment method of the customer and the charging station. For example if I have an RFID token from an MSP and we have no working relationship established, our customer will not be able to charge. Only when there is a contract in place and the corresponding IT system talking to each other do we have the real-time acknowledgement of this customer so that the charging can begin. People consciously want to keep out the complexity of banking systems from the charging ecosystem. That is why the latter was established using mobility service providers where the customer simply has to authenticate themselves and the system knows they have paid. There’s actually no money passing through at the charging station. We also enable customers to be able to charge without prior contracts or memberships, at any time at our stations. The so-called ad-hoc payment. To further improve the usability, we will soon update our app in order to support ad-hoc payment in a more convenient way. This app also has to talk to our back-end system and this interface has to work in real-time.

How about adding credit card readers onto the chargers?

We have looked into it but this is a new and different type of interoperability because the requirements of banking systems for credit card payments are different in different countries so you’d have to acknowledge these varying systems, hardwares and chargers across each country. This would add an additional twist to the already complex set-up. An alternative solution we’ve been testing recently is ‘Plug and Charge’ which is exactly what it sounds like – a customer simply plugs into a public charging station, like IONITY, and charges their EV without needing a specific membership card or payment card. The technology should identify the user and process the payment automatically, thanks to a secure communication protocol, This, however, creates another challenge on top of the interoperability pyramid: how do we ensure it’s reliable and safe? How do we ensure data is protected? We’re really excited to bring this technology forward, and we will keep you updated.

So the next obvious question is – how do you stay on top of the interoperability challenge?

By testing, testing and testing. This is why we invest so much into it and have set up our own testing site that enables us to constantly study how different vehicles communicate with our hardware. We try to facilitate the industry as a whole by including other market participants when we test to detect problems as early as possible, before our customers do. The community plays a large part in this and when we do hear feedback from them, this gets funneled back into the testing. And all this is eventually paid back to the customers in the form of a reliable charging experience for their electric vehicles.

The IONITY test truck is one of the tools we use to test our network: it simulates different EVs and battery scenarios to test interoperability for every EV using the CCS