BMW i DC Fast Charger at Plug In 2014

It looks like it's just a blue box on a pole, but BMW's new i DC Fast Charger represents a much bigger deal than just the lowest-cost SAE Combo Charger on the market. BMW sees it as the key to getting more drivers into electric vehicles. As Robert Healey, the EV infrastructure manager for BMW of North America told us, "For [BMW], the future is clear. DC charging really is the future."

"DC charging really is the future." – Robert Healey, BMW

We spoke with Healey at the Plug-In 2014 conference in San Jose, CA last week about the promise of the new $6,548 DC fast charger. "The strategy is pretty simple," he said. "BMW wants to get as many DC Fast Chargers out there as possible. We're not in the charging business, we're in the EV business and to support the sales of our cars, we have identified some key areas: home charging, public charging and assistant services for EV drivers."

That's why the first of the new blue boxes will be installed at the 285 i dealers in the US, many of whom already installed the cables needed for fast charging when they put in the Level 2 chargers, said BMW's Cliff Fietzek, manager of connected eMobility. Even if you haven't gotten a site ready for a DC fast charger, the installation costs for BMW's unit are lower because you don't need to pour concrete (for the wall unit) and the SAE Combo connector plug costs "significantly" less than the competing CHAdeMO plug, Fietzek said.

One minor drawback to the BMW DC fast charger compared to the more expensive traditional, full-size DC fast chargers is that the 24kW BMW fast charger allows you to charge to 80 percent full in 30 minutes, while the bigger units can do the job in 20. The good news for EV drivers with SAE Combo cars (which, in the US, means the Chevy Spark EV and the VW e-Golf) is that any driver with a Combo plug car and a ChargePoint card will be able to use the BMW stations. In fact, BMW is talking with both GM and VW on where to install SAE Combo stations in the US so that there is minimal duplication of effort.

BMW i DC Fast Charger

In other places, BMW is working with other automakers, including Nissan, which uses a competing fast charging standard. "In Great Britain, we are installing triple chargers, the CHAdeMO, SAE Combo and the high-power, three-phase AC that can go up to 43 kW to support the Renault [EVs] and others," Fietzek said. The reason for the competitors working together is that the cost of laying the cables and pouring the concrete are the most expensive parts of an installation, and the different connectors and software can all be run from one box.

"[Interoperability] is the best customer experience, it's the best way to get customers into electric vehicles."

BMW has also worked to get two charging networks (ChargePoint and NRG eVgo) to play nice behind the scenes for the ChargeNow DC Fast free charging program that launches with the new chargers. "What's significant about the program, which is a first for the industry right now, is that you are able to use a ChargePoint card on the EVgo network," Healey said. "Our customers don't need to go to the EVgo to open up a new account. It's the first step towards true interoperability." Think of it like the early ATMs, when you couldn't use your bank card at a competing bank's ATM. Now, that sort of ease-of-use is standard, you just pay a little fee to do so. BMW hopes the same thing will happen with DC fast chargers once the free charging program ends (currently, that's set to happen at the end of 2015).

"We have eight or 10 large charging networks out there right now," Healey said. "The future is that they have to be interoperable. It's the best customer experience, it's the best way to get customers into electric vehicles."