It may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of big automakers, but in the coming rollout of plug-in vehicles intended for the mass market, software and communication between vehicles and the power grid will be a key piece of the puzzle. Today Ford (s F), which has partnered with utilities, the Electric Power Research Institute and the Department of Energy, pulled back the curtain on a 3-year demonstration project to test out vehicle-to-grid software for plug-in hybrid vehicles.
While the automaker has so far only provided Ohio utility American Electric Power (s AEP) with vehicles loaded with the new software, Ford expects to install the system on all 21 of its plug-in hybrid Escape demo vehicles by the end of the year. Ford’s Nancy Gioia, the automaker’s director of sustainable mobility technologies and hybrids, tells us it will consider developing a production version of the system. And Greg Frenette, who manages Ford’s electric vehicle program, says the communication system is being considered for the all-electric Ford Focus slated for 2011 and a plug-in hybrid model slated for 2012.
Today’s announcement comes on the heels of word from Nissan (s NSANY) that its upcoming LEAF electric sedan will be equipped with remote controls to let vehicle owners start and stop charging using a smartphone. Ford’s system, meanwhile, will allow drivers to program charging based on time and electricity rate preferences; the vehicle will employ smart meters and have a touchscreen interface built right in. And when it’s plugged in, battery packs will be able to “communicate directly with the electrical grid via smart meters provided by utility companies through wireless networking,” according to Ford, with drivers programming settings on the touchscreen using the so-called Ford Work Solutions onboard computer.
According to Gioia, the communication system now hitting the demonstration stage stems from concepts already built for Ford Work Solutions, as well as the company’s Sync (developed by Microsoft (s MSFT)) and SmartGauge with Eco Guide technology. We’ve written over on GigaOM Pro (subscription required) about how Ford’s Sync technology, rolled out last year, can be used to teach cars to talk to the grid.
The Sync system represents one of the largest deployments of vehicle intelligence to date, though so far it’s primarily been used to give drivers online vehicle “Health Reports” and software upgrades, as well as to control car stereos and mobile phones with voice commands. Gioia told us earlier this year, however, that the technology could be used for communication tools and services needed for vehicle-grid integration.
This new demo is also being announced less than two weeks after the DOE awarded Ford $100 million in grants to support various plug-in vehicle projects. According to Frenette, “The scope of the technical development effort co-funded by the DOE grant is under discussion between Ford and DOE,” and no final decision has been made about whether or how much grant money will be used to support this new project.
Three years may seem like a long time to have this technology in a demonstration phase, given that plug-in vehicles targeted for the mass market are rolling out next year, but it’s not such a long stretch in the context of Ford’s expectation (as explained by Gioia in July) that we’re more than a decade away from having a large-scale vehicle-to-grid system.