Electric car charging cables and connectors explained

Baffled by electric car cables and how to charge an electric vehicle (EV)? Keep reading for everything you need to know

James Wilson
Oct 18, 2019

Thinking about going down the road of electric cars? They are becoming more and more viable as day-to-day cars, although their prices remain noticeably more expensive than petrol or diesel alternatives.

But the concept of electric cars is a new one for all of us, and there are various aspects of electric car ownership that will be far removed from what we are used to. Not only is the car fundamentally changed thanks to its electric motor replacing a combutsion engine, the knock-on of that is you now have charging cables and their connectors to think about.

As getting your head around electric car cables and connectors is no simple task, we’ve broken it down bit by bit. Read on to learn more about the different connector types and cable charging modes, what a tethered charger is and what type of cables the most popular electric cars use.

 

Electric car charging cables

Electric car charging cables aren’t as simple as you may expect. Not only are there multiple types of plugs and connectors but there are different modes of operation, too. As cables connect directly into the expensive electricals onboard your electric car, it's important to understand how these things work.

Put simply, an electric car charging cable is made up of three parts: a connector which plugs into your car, a length of wire and another plug which connects into a power source. Even with just three elements, however, there is huge scope for variation.

The EU realised this and back in 2014 brought into effect legislation that stated all new plug-in vehicles and charging points must include a 'Type 2' charging connector. Great, so all charging points are now Type 2 only, you may think. Nope. In a race to charge batteries faster, several rapid charging plugs have been developed and are offered on new electric cars.

Charging cable types

To understand plug connectors you must first realise that power is a huge influencer. A traditional three-pin UK plug is limited in its ability to carry a high voltage safely over a long period of time, i.e. the exact conditions you need for charging an electric car. This is true for all plug and connector designs, as each will at some point have a maximum amount of voltage it can safely take from the grid and put into your car.

When it comes to power (and therefore how long it will take to charge your car), electric car charging is typically broken down into three categories: slow, fast and rapid – you can find out more about car chargers in our dedicated article. The most common electric car cable connectors are as follows.

Type 1

The Type 1 plug isn’t very common these days. It enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame when early electric cars such as the Mk1 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV arrived on the market in 2014. It is commonly used for slow or fast charging but isn’t suitable for rapid charging.

Type 2

The Type 2 connector is suitable for slow, fast and rapid charging. As mentioned earlier, the Type 2 is now the European standard, so it is the most prevalent option on the market – everything from the Renault Zoe to the Tesla Model S features one.

Commando

If you have ever stayed in a caravan, chances are you will be familiar with the Commando plug. Similar to the Type 1 plug, it is suited to slow and fast charging applications but can’t keep up with the highflyers in the rapid charging club.

CHAdeMO

While its name may look like the effect of sneezing while typing, the CHAdeMO is actually quite a handy plug. It is most suited to rapid charging applications and is more commonly used by Asian car manufacturers - such as Nissan - although its design means that cars require an additional plug to have this on top of the legally required Type 2 plug.

CCS or Combined Charging Standard 

The CCS plug is similar in capabilities to the CHAdeMO above, in that it is best suited to rapid charging. However, unlike the CHAdeMO it builds on the Type 2 design, albeit with added connections on the bottom of the plug. CCS connectors are most common on German car models, beig used by BMW, Mercedes and Volkswagen, but they are also spreading to other manufacturers that sell cars in Europe.

UK mains plug

These plugs need no introduction; they have been powering TVs, jacuzzis and other less important equipment in the UK for decades. They are commonly found on the slowest car chargers and aren’t well suited to car charging for long periods, due to concerns around fire safety.

Types of electric car charging cable modes 

Modes of operation are a little different to plug/connector design, as they affect what these are capable of. There is no set standard for carmakers to follow, so it is up to them to decide which, if any, are included with the cars they sell. In total, there are four modes but motorists are only likely to encounter two of them.

Before moving on, it is important to note that electric cars come with their own onboard computers to manage the charging process, as do most charging points.

While covered in greater depth below, the mode of charging referrers to a charging system’s (whether that be a cable, cable and wall-box or any other collection of equipment) intelligence when it comes to putting power into a battery pack. Some cables do nothing more than connect a power source to a battery, while more advanced options will make sure just the right about of voltage and current is reaching the battery.

Mode 1 

Mode 1 is a veyr simple prospect. You are merely connecting a car to the mains using a wire, with no method of controlling current/voltage drawn or utilising any extra safety features. Chances are motorists will never come across Mode 1 chargers.

Mode 2 

Mode 2 cables build upon Mode 1 to provide more safety and control. They feature some inline circuitry to help communicate with the car and dictate how much current is being pumped into the battery pack - they normally connect your car to a traditional three-pin UK plug as well.

Mode 3

Mode 3 is when things start to get clever, allowing the car and charging point to talk to one another. What this means is that electric cars can instruct the charging point to turn off the power when the battery is fully charged and also allow the car to evaluate a charging point's capacity - changing the speed with which the car will be charged. Typically, these are wall-box type units.

Mode 4 

Mode 4 is reserved for something called DC fast charging aka rapid charging. These tap into beefier power supplies and through a combination of the electronics in the charging station and the electric car being charged, so they add extra charge to the car's battery at quite some rate.

It is only really Mode 2 charging which uses a cable that has circuitry in between both ends of the cable. The rest either do without or rely on larger electronics at both ends of the cable, such as a wall-box.

What is a tethered electric car charging station?

A tethered electric car charging station provides the cable needed to charge your car – assuming of course it has a suitable connector. Contrastingly, an untethered unit is one where you need to provide your own cable. Therefore, if you don't have the right cable with you, you won't be able to charge your car.

Electric cars and their cables

 

Make 

Model

Connector Type(s)

Audi

e-tron

Type 2 and CCS

BMW

i3

Type 2 and CCS

Hyundai

Kona Electric

Type 2 and CCS

Jaguar 

I Pace

Type 2 and CCS

Kia

e-Niro

Type 2 and CCS

Nissan

Leaf

Type 2 and CHAdeMO

Renault

Zoe

Type 2

Tesla 

Model 3

Type 2 and Tesla Type 2

Tesla 

Model S

Type 2 and CCS

Electric car cable and connector myth-busting

If there was one thing sure to infuriate drivers when charging their electric car, it would be cable theft, or someone unplugging your car. Fortunately, manufacturers recognise this and lock cables in place once plugged in and the car is locked – anyone telling you otherwise is scaremongering.

In the past topping up reusable AA batteries involved the risk of overcharging your batteries. However, electric cars are a little more complicated. Their onboard circuitry is there to protect the complex electronics, making sure they don’t overcharge and charge at an appropriate rate for the external conditions – batteries need to charge slower in the cold, for instance. As a result, you shouldn't need to worry unduly about causing serious damage to your car by charging regularly.

 

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