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Revving for Plug-in Cars, Ford Learns From Its Earlier Mistakes

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car-phone-ericssonA few decades ago, it seemed like a good idea to install mobile phones into vehicles. But as mobile devices advanced, car phones soon became about as cool and essential as an 8-inch floppy disk is for today’s computer users (read: not very). Having jumped onto the mobile phone installation bandwagon in the 1970s and 80s, Ford Motor (s F) now knows better than to hardwire electric vehicles for specific charging technologies and energy management tools.

The lesson, according to the head of Ford’s sustainable mobility technologies and hybrid vehicle programs, Nancy Gioia, is to avoid betting on an early iteration of hardware for a fast-evolving technology. With that in mind, Gioia told us in an interview today at the Edison Electric Conference in San Francisco, Calif., Ford is working to make its plug-in vehicles “as accepting as possible” when it comes to interfacing with utilities, charging infrastructure developers and energy management software providers.

Thousands of companies — many of them startups — are working on hardware and software for charging plug-in vehicles, said Gioia, “We have not come even close to a funnel.”

In other words, if Ford commits to any kind of exclusive charging scheme now, it could end up with plug-in cars that within a few short years boast about as much utility as a clunky car phone from the 1970s. Computing intelligence and hardware deployed in vehicle-charging networks, Gioia said, can be expected to evolve much faster than people upgrade their vehicles. “People expect the rate of change of computers” for the coming slew of EV services, she said, when in fact we hang onto cars for about eight years in the U.S. — even longer in other parts of the world.

As a result, plug-in vehicles need to be designed to easily adapt to new technology for bi-directional data flow between vehicles, charging stations and/or utilities, and eventually — sometime after 2020, according to Gioia — bi-directional energy flow with vehicle-to-grid technology, which involves using plug-in car batteries to help reduce strain on the power grid during times of peak demand, and also store renewable energy from variable sources when demand is low.

Essentially, Ford is trying to develop vehicles that will be relevant amid rapid technology changes. That echoes part of Apple’s strategy for making its mobile devices open to innovation, that of reducing or eliminating “the most egregious ‘frictions’ that historically slowed mobile app innovation and adoption,” as explained in a GigaOM Pro (subscription only) research note published earlier this month.

In Apple’s case, such an approach helped spur innovation by eliminating user interfaces that made it difficult for consumers to install and use apps, and also making it easier for developers to produce applications for mass distribution. For Ford, the process of reducing friction for innovation and adoption of plug-in vehicles is more cumbersome, and at this point largely involves setting standards and working with utilities and infrastructure developers to figure out what each party needs in order to serve mainstream drivers, as well as answering the basic question of where the various hardware and intelligence will reside (whether in the car, at charge stations, in a mobile device or elsewhere).

Utilities and automakers, Gioia said, are now “tied together through a common fuel — electricity.” Now they have to figure out how to securely transfer sensitive billing information, vehicle ID numbers, a battery’s state of charge and charge point locations. They also need to figure out how drivers should be presented with such data.

It might not sound like much, Gioia said, but it was a huge accomplishment for the automotive industry to settle on a standard plug, which has allowed them to go ahead and design plug-in vehicles with that piece of hardware. But based on what it learned from the early car phones, Ford doesn’t want to have that much more specialized gear on its cars unless it can be easily upgraded. Vehicles have to be “durable, reliable and perceived as safe,” Gioia said. “Changing technology is scary stuff.”

Photo (1969) credit Ericsson