Car Tech: Electric Vehicles Get an IT Assist

Reporting EV data on a website

Since electric cars are being developed with more IT involvement this time around, it will be possible for drivers to call up a report on their cars and see where they have driven and view battery performance over time. They can then use that information to make decisions about how they drive or even which route they take to work.

Interestingly, the Chevy Volt already has a website that reports anonymized usage of battery data on each vehicle, including the current charge state and the range that's left on the battery; which charge mode an EV owner is using; and the vehicle's total lifetime EV driving compared to using only fuel. (The Volt is an extended-range vehicle that runs for about 40 or 50 miles on an electric motor and then recharges using an onboard gas engine.) In mid-2011, the site will provide richer data about driving efficiency, including how many miles have been driven on only electric power. For now, the company has released some individual driver stats, such as fuel economy and commute distance.

The Chevy Volt and other electric cars also work with the Microsoft Hohm service, which helps people monitor energy consumption in their homes and ties in to their electric company metering. It can show drivers how much power they've used for charging their EVs.

Gartner's Koslowski says these management sites are crucial to the success of the EV because they give the driver an inside look into power consumption. On a broader scale, they also show how IT can get a higher-level view of total power consumption. In fact, in terms of EV infrastructure, IT can help better manage the power usage from one central location, examine grid load and even offer drivers incentives, such as a credit on their bills for charging at set times. These ideas are in early planning phases as power companies wait to see whether EVs become a consumer phenomenon.

Managing energy delivery for EVs

One of the most exciting prospects for IT involvement in the EV industry relates to managing power delivery and consumption. Today, with gas-powered cars, the infrastructure is widespread but low-tech -- in other words, there isn't much precise data about where a given gallon of gas originates and how much fuel we have on hand.

"In the gasoline world, you currently don't have [a rich set of] information," says Mike Tinskey, a sustainability manager at Ford. "You don't know what customers are using in terms of their gas. You still see gasoline stations measuring their fuel tank levels using very large wooden measuring sticks. Understanding how much gas they have in the ground and in the refinery certainly is reliant on historical facts and figures to understand where demand is around the country."

Tinskey says it will be easier to analyze EV data in terms of knowing where the electrons are coming from (pulling data from U.S.-based power companies) and where that power is going (by analyzing data from charging stations). Ford has already analyzed much of this data and has announced the cities in which it plans to deploy test cars for the upcoming Ford Focus EV, including Houston, Detroit and New York. Tinskey says Ford analyzed data such as power availability, driving habits and even climate conditions.

Mike Kuss is chief operating officer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and is a member of the Electric Vehicle Grid-Integration Team, a research group within the Department of Energy that works with public and private entities, including automakers. He says EV energy management is more than possible. His team currently tests EV trucks on a regular basis in Colorado to learn more about their electricity needs and how IT can be involved in adjusting routes to meet demand. For example, his team has looked at how fleet vehicle needs change when a route involves a lot of idling and driving in stop-and-go traffic.

"We actually watch the vehicles in real time; we can see how driving up a hill affects the drop in battery pack and energy remaining," Kuss says. "Based on how people actually drive, for thousands of people, we see that people are actually not using all the battery power. Every day of your life, you might not drive more than 50 miles; you use your car only occasionally for longer vacations and longer drives."

Kuss says owning a second car also dramatically impacts EV usage patterns. Someone might use an EV only for commuting, for example.

The data from these tests will be used to evaluate and plan how energy is used in cities, how much is available and what kinds of energy are used, including renewable power sources.

Creating a network operation center for EVs

Once an EV infrastructure was in place, it would be possible to have a network operations center (NOC) for electric cars, starting in major cities like San Francisco, which has already embraced an early infrastructure. Gartner's Koslowski says it may well take government involvement for this to happen, first to build charging stations, then to link them into a NOC that can monitor them all.

A NOC would help tie the actual energy needs of EV drivers to the existing power-generation supply in a city and could help planners map out longer-term energy needs as EV use becomes more common.

"A network operations center would mostly benefit electric utilities," says Tinskey. "So we'd expect that the utilities would be the catalyst if such a system were proposed." But because utilities are focused locally, expanding regional NOCs into a national phenomenon would be "a bit more of a challenge," he says.

A NOC for electric vehicles may prove critical, Koslowski says. He expects that EVs will account for up to 7% of all cars on the road by 2020, and that that percentage will be much higher by 2030. That means their impact on the grid will be much more substantial, and cities will need to know more about where the cars are driving, how to balance the power load, how to distribute charging stations and how to make sure charging is always available.

Koslowski says there is a great opportunity for IT to build the infrastructure, and especially the NOC concept, right from the start. A city with a NOC might be able to feed data to a driver about where to park and charge, or send alerts to drivers as the range of the car is decreasing.

Controlling security for EV communication

Once IT is involved in analyzing data streaming from a Chevy Volt, for example, or helping drivers determine where the closest charging station is located, another technical consideration arises: security for all of this communication. These concerns involve the privacy of the EV data itself, hackers' ability to disrupt communication, and the financial transactions required for charging the car at the local mall.

Ralf Oestreicher, a strategy manager at Mercedes-Benz, says security is a major factor in building the EV infrastructure. He recounted the company's current strategy for the E-Cell prototypes it has deployed in Europe (including a Mercedes AMG E-Cell). For charging purchases, he says, the data is encrypted at the point of charging and stays that way back to the clearinghouse that handles the transaction. Yet the clearinghouse can decrypt and relay only the part of the data that is related to an approved charging station provider -- it decrypts data separately for each provider, rather than using one IT system to decrypt data for every provider. In that way, the driver's data is never aggregated across all charging stations, which could expose it to theft.

Standards are another area where IT can help. Ford's Tinskey says this is still in the early stages. Each individual data silo in the EV infrastructure is technically advanced -- the power companies use a smart grid, the charging stations send data to the EVs about location, and even the car itself uses a standard connection for charging. But the standards for communicating among these silos are not yet in place.

Tinskey says one power utility might have proprietary standards for use within its own utility, but there are no industrywide standards today for communicating the power level of an EV to any utility on the grid, or for aggregating the data about where and when you can get the cheapest charge from any vendor and any power company.

The lack of standards is both a blessing and a curse for EV security because there is a potential to develop secure standards the right way, with participation from multiple vendors, says Tinskey. Fortunately, the EV industry has shown that it is willing cooperate on standards -- for example, the SAE J1772 charging standard is a five-pin plug used on the most popular electric cars, such as the Volt and the Leaf. This plug can transmit data securely from the car, including charge state and range.

Industrywide standards for handling EV data might be slow to develop, Tinskey says, depending on how many people buy the cars over the next few years.

To be sure, the technology to help EVs is mostly in place. Much of what's still needed involves developing the communication between charging station providers, the grid, and the new makes and models. Car companies are already analyzing the rich data from drivers; the next steps will be to use this data to develop better cars and an even more robust EV infrastructure.

John Brandon is a former IT manager at a Fortune 100 company who now writes about technology. He's written more than 2,500 articles in the past 10 years. Follow his tweets at @jmbrandonbb.

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