What makes one electric vehicle charger different from another?

Not much, to be honest. Some -- such as the Blink charger from Ecotality crafted by Frog Design -- look nicer than others, but in the end, EV chargers will perform the same tasks, meet the same safety and performance specifications and plug into cars in fairly identical ways.

In some ways, chargers are really intelligent extension cords: necessary, complex, utilitarian -- and stuck in the garage.

So how do you survive the looming consolidation? Alliances, says Steve Gitlin, vice president at AeroVironment, during a visit to our offices. The company scored a major coup earlier this year when Nissan selected AeroVironment as its partner of choice for home chargers for the launch of the Leaf. (Who is positioned to win and lose in charging stations will be a primary topic at the Networked EV taking place November 9.)

Nissan can't require Leaf buyers to put a Level 2 (240 volt) charger in their houses. Nonetheless, Nissan will encourage them to buy chargers, and will encourage them to buy AeroVironment's. Since many consumers will buy cars and contract for chargers at the same time, the recommendation could give the company an early advantage.

"It's really important that you help people in the initial stages of adoption," he said.

The relationship, however, isn't exclusive. Nissan is working with Ecotality on public and fleet networks, and utilities in various regions are inking their own deals.

Chargers will cost around $2,200 to fully install: $200 will go to permits and $2,000 for hardware and labor. Buyers get a 50 percent federal tax credit on the cost of their home charging stations, above and beyond the $7,500 tax credit on the cars and any state credits.

AeroVironment will initially sell its chargers as a piece of hardware through a network of installers and electricians. Some other companies -- Ecotality, Coulomb Technologies, Better Place -- hope to bundle the hardware with subscription contracts for power and other services. Subscription services could be lucrative, but it's uncertain how much customers will pay for these services and what the services will actually entail. AeroVironment may look at that in the future, but for now, charging will operate as a transactional business.

Most chargers will be installed at homes, but AeroVironment hopes also to sell chargers to hotels, convenience stories and other public locations. It is working with groups in North Carolina on public charging networks.

The company is also coming out with high-speed Level 3 chargers (480 volt),  two- and four-port chargers, and portable chargers for tow trucks that will give stranded drivers enough juice to get home.

AeroVironment's other potential advantages? The company has been around for decades and has $164 million in cash. It was founded in the '70s by Paul MacCready, who designed the Gossamer Albatross, the bike-airplane that flew across the English Channel in 1979. It has a thriving business in unmanned, portable aircraft. Recently, the company tested a high-altitude (55,000 feet) unmanned aircraft that carries liquid hydrogen to charge its batteries.

The company has also been making charging stations for companies with electric forklift fleets.

High-speed charging for forklifts has largely reduced the demand for battery swapping stations in that industry. Could the same happen in EVs? It's going to be an interesting ride.

Tags: aerovironment, battery swapping, better place, coulomb technologies, electric car, electric car charging, ev, ford focus, nissan leaf, plug-in hybrid, tesla roadster