Driving Toward an Open Platform for Electric-Car Charging Networks

A growing number of political leaders — from mayors on up to presidents and prime ministers — are taking up the electric vehicle torch, working on policies and incentives to spur widespread adoption of plug-in cars. In parts of the U.S., UK, Japan and elsewhere, initiatives to quickly develop networks of charging stations for the plug-in vehicles slated to roll out in 2011 and beyond are already taking form, and running up against a key question on the road to a competitive green car marketplace: How do you accelerate deployment of today’s technology while remaining open to future innovations?

On some level, this question is about the familiar issue of how (and how much) government should play a role in free markets. But it’s also another example of how lessons from the history of computing can apply to cleantech innovations. According to the finance chief for London’s climate change program, Padmesh Shukla, Sun Microsystems’ Java platform — an ubiquitous system for software development for mobile devices, enterprise servers and the web — offers a model for governments now trying to craft guidelines for companies to bid on government-backed EV infrastructure projects.

Bottom line, Shukla said at a recent panel hosted by Think London, which works to attract direct investment in the city and help foreign companies set up business there, London wants to have EV infrastructure that looks more like Java, which software developers can use for free, than Microsoft’s proprietary technology. “It has to be an open platform,” Shukla said.

In software, open platforms allow third parties to add functionality to a basic framework — providing, as O’Reilly Radar explained back in 2007, tools and services that the platform provider has not gotten around to yet, or has not done well. For electric vehicle infrastructure, Shukla explained that the London government, working in conjunction with larger UK initiatives, does not want to pick one technology or company to have a monopoly on charging infrastructure. Using the open platform model, the idea is to help foster development of common standards, tools and practices for charge point developers — ensuring that all charging stations can operate with all electric models — and generally create an environment in which electric car companies can prosper.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg problem,” Shukla said. Limited access to charge points drags down demand for electric cars, and a limited number of electric cars on the road drags down business for charge point developers. So London is trying to foster that EV-friendly environment with policies such as a mandate for all new residential developments above a certain density to have charge points in their parking lots. The city has also committed to investing in a public charge-point network with funds that it expects to be matched by the national government and again by private investors.

California utility San Diego Gas & Electric also envisions an open model. SDG&E Clean Transportation manager Bill Zobel, who is working (among other things) on the utility’s partnership with the Renault-Nissan Alliance to ready its system for new demand from the automakers’ plug-in vehicles, told us earlier this year that the utility is talking with several charging companies about how to integrate their hardware with the grid. But Zobel told us SDG&E plans to leave the selection of different charging hardware and services to its customers — whether public agencies, property owners or businesses.

Through its talks with charge point developers, SDG&E is helping to set up an informal framework. By establishing the guidelines for what technologies will qualify for government funds for the planned citywide charging network, Shukla’s team in London is creating a more formal one. In both cases, we’re in early days. SDG&E is months away from getting its first test fleet on the road, and London remains up to a year away from “fully baking” the details on how to bid for the charge point network buildout. But setting out with an open platform is a good way to start. Shukla said at the Think London panel, the idea is to “start building templates for the market to see that these things can be done,” and then let it take over from there.