Ford needs Tesla to help it beat Tesla

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Last year, Ford surprised F-150 Lightning truck owners with an accessory that can recharge stranded Teslas. Now, it looks like Tesla is the one lending a hand to Ford.

In a surprise Twitter Spaces meeting between Ford CEO Jim Farley and Tesla CEO Elon Musk on Thursday, Farley announced Ford is adopting Tesla’s “North American Charging Standard” (NACS), an open version of Tesla’s proprietary charging port. “We think this is a huge move for our industry and for all electric customers,” Farley said on the call.

On the surface, it seems ideal: the two biggest EV sellers working together for the benefit of the electric vehicle future. Ford customers get access to Tesla’s superior charging network, and Tesla gets crucial buy-in for its charging technology from one of the top automakers in the world.

Farley: ..when they go use the Tesla Supercharger they’re still using Ford [software]

But the buddy-buddy conversation between CEOs sounded like Ford bending the knee to Tesla as the real EV leader. On the same day the deal was announced, Tesla’s Model Y was declared the world’s top-selling vehicle — combustion engine or EV — by an analytics firm.

On Twitter Space, Farley said it’s “super hard making better electric architectures” as he massaged Musk and Tesla’s achievements. The Ford CEO also recalled his own children roasting him about the ubiquity of the Supercharger network on a recent road trip, asking him if they could stop at any of them. The version of Farley that took jabs at Musk and the Cybertruck was nowhere to be found.

Farley said all of Ford’s existing and future customers would get access to 12,000 Tesla Superchargers across the US. And for current Ford EV owners, Musk says an adapter is expected to be in production early next year. That will be separate from Tesla’s Magic Docks that allow non-Tesla EVs to plug into the Supercharger network and are available in only a handful of locations in the US so far.

The Tesla adapter for Ford EV owners will likely cost “hundreds” of dollars, Musk said, and both CEOs hinted that subscriptions could also play a role in EV charging in the future. Beyond the adapters, Tesla seems to be opening more doors for its new partner. Farley said during an interview on CNBC Friday that Ford customers won’t need to use Tesla’s app; instead, the charging sessions can be activated and monitored in the FordPass app.

Said Farley, “…when they go use the Tesla Supercharger they’re still using Ford [software]. We were very concerned that they had to switch over to Tesla software, but that was part of the deal. It was a dealbreaker for us.”

 

A Mustang Mach-E and Tesla Model Y share a ChargePoint.Image: Umar Shakir / The Verge

In the EU, thanks to stricter regulation around plug types, a far greater number of Tesla Superchargers are available to non-Tesla EVs. And that clearly irks Musk, who complained on the call about being “stuck with” the CCS implementation in Europe and how even a private network in the region was barred from having proprietary ports.

European EV drivers, however, benefit from not needing to worry if a plug will fit or not and don’t have to deal with adapters as US EV drivers do. Musk said EV customers “will be all the better for it” if NACS can win out as the main standard in North America.

In some sense, Ford didn’t have a choice in the matter. Compared to Tesla’s Superchargers, the company’s so-called  is tiny. Cobbled together from a variety of third-party public chargers, drivers have found that they break down far too often, and many run on buggy software.

And Ford couldn’t wait for the third-party charging companies to build a network as reliable as Tesla’s. It isn’t clear they ever will, even with billions of federal dollars rolling into the sector, and Ford is under a lot of pressure to get the ball rolling with its EV business. The company split itself into two last year, letting its profitable Ford Blue gas vehicle business exist separately from the new Ford Model E company focused on EVs. While Model E is hard at work to compete with Tesla on three-row EV options and autonomous driving, it also stands to lose $3 billion this year. Ford needs to sell a lot more EVs, and charging is a crucial component.

In that respect, cutting corners to get Ford Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lighting customers more places to charge starts to make more sense, at least for the short term. “For [Ford customers] to be able to have this benefit early next year already and not have to buy a new car is, I think, a real statement by you and the Tesla team,” Farley said.

To my eye, Tesla plugs are objectively better than other EV chargers today — they’re smaller, lighter, and easier to understand. But Ford may be leaving some opportunities on the table. The company’s move to adopt Tesla’s NACS is taking the easy way out of the charging network problem. And while Ford hitches a ride on Musk’s bandwagon, other automakers like GM, Hyundai, and VW could see this as an opportunity to freely strike their own deals and innovate in the charging space.

Both Tesla and Ford are also participating in an industry-wide consortium that includes big names like GM and Electrify America. Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced the group, known as the National Charging Experience Consortium (or ChargeX), to address the industry’s public charging woes. And it set a deadline to find that solution in the next two years.

The consortium’s director, John Smart, told The Verge on a call Wednesday that the national labs have a goal that “all EV drivers of any vehicle can charge on any charging equipment,” specifically ones that are federally funded. The labs will try to help build a universal diagnostic system that works for all the EV manufacturers, equipment OEMs, and charging network operators — but Smart tells us it’s the free market’s role with what standards win out amongst participants.

Musk hinted during the Twitter Space that along with handing out NACS as a standard, Tesla could even be “more helpful” to standardizing tech in the EV world. He likened its position to Android in the cell phone industry, once again claiming Tesla could potentially open up “source code” to help other manufacturers. But Musk’s open outreach to EV manufacturers could also be stepping on the toes of everyone involved in the ChargeX consortium, which is assembling for the first time next month.

Of the consortium, Smart says, “This is a voluntary, nonbinding arrangement between the labs and other organizations…There’s value in working together, but ultimately, anyone can walk whenever they want.”

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