10 Electric Car Smart Charging Players to Watch

electricvehiclechargingstationA growing number of automakers are readying plug-in vehicles for mass market rollouts within the next 3-5 years. Racing against the clock, some of the first major deployments of smart charging technology — software, networks and devices that can manage vehicle recharging to minimize strain on the grid and maximize use of clean power sources like solar and wind — are starting to roll out. Utilities, automakers, government labs and startups have roles to play, but exactly how the technology evolves remains to be seen. Here’s 10 proposals — from high-profile companies like Better Place and Nissan, as well as under-the-radar national lab researchers and startups like Juice Technologies — that offer a glimpse of how the competition is shaping up.

Developer Type Tech/Project Stage/Scale
Better Place Hardware/
Better Place envisions its network providers controlling charging based on battery state of charge, user behavior, grid status/load and other variables. The startup has agreements with California cities, Israel, Denmark, Australia and other regions to set up networks of charge points and battery swap stations. Networks are set to open at large scale starting in 2011. How it will fund all this remains to be seen.
Coulomb Technologies Hardware Coulomb makes charge points that can temporarily suspend subscribers’ charging sessions based on utilities’ commands and user preferences/rate plan, facilitated through partnerships with software providers like GridPoint. Coulomb has integrated its networked charging stations with GridPoint’s system. As more utilities adopt load management systems from other providers, Coulomb expects to also integrate with those systems to automate vehicle charge management.
Ford Auto The system will allow drivers to program charging based on time and electricity rate preferences. Battery packs will be able to “communicate directly with the electrical grid via smart meters, and drivers will be able to program settings on a touchscreen interface using the so-called Ford Work Solutions onboard computer. Ford announced plans this month to test the system in 21 Ford Escape plug-in hybrids over the next three years, starting with a deployment to American Electric Power in Columbus, Ohio. The communication system is being considered for the electric Ford Focus slated for 2011.
General Motors Auto The upcoming Chevy Volt will let owners program charging for different times to take advantage of off-peak rates. GM’s OnStar system could communicate with utilities, potentially making other equipment such as smart meters unnecessary. Chevy Volt due out in 2011. Timelines and plans for how GM might apply the OnStar system for smart charging have not been detailed.
GridPoint Software System lets utilities automatically and dynamically shed portions of the load from plugged-in, charging vehicles based on set parameters — such as a promise that charging will be completed within six hours. Utilities including Xcel Energy, Austin Energy, Duke Energy, Progress energy and Seattle City Light are already deploying GridPoint’s technology. Utility SDG&E will also use the software in its DOE-backed charging infrastructure demo with ECOtality subsidiary eTec.
Google.org Software Googlers have written software with “vehicle dispatch algorithms” to help smooth out the grid load (starting and stopping vehicle charging based on energy supply and demand). The team includes Alec Brooks, who previously worked on Tesla’s vehicle-to-grid strategy. In prototype. Google has a fleet of plug-in vehicles available for employees at its corporate headquarters.
IBM Software IBM aims to help manage coordination of players in the charging ecosystem including utilities, billing system developers, cities, hardware companies and automakers. In Denmark, for example it’s developing tech to synchronize EV charging with the availability of wind on the grid. IBM joined the EDISON research consortium in February 2009, partnering with Denmark’s DONG Energy and a handful of other companies to develop smart infrastructure for EVs with funding from Denmark. The project is set to be tested at first on the 40,000-resident Danish island Bornholm.
Juice Technologies (Plug Smart) Hardware/
Juice has developed an off-board metering device (using some technology from utility San Diego Gas & Electric) sized to fit in a typical trunk for a demo with SDG&E. The device could eventually allow customers to charge EVs and track their energy usage and carbon footprint online or by mobile phone when used in conjunction with a utility smart meter. Juice reportedly plans to sell smart charging products through utilities for the next 2-3 years before expanding to sales in big-box retail stores such as Best Buy or Costco. The SDG&E demo is part of the massive infrastructure trial that won support from the DOE this month, and the tech needs to be tested for security, accuracy and functionality before the companies negotiate how to share IP and consider “full deployment.”
Nissan Auto Nissan’s “EV-IT” system encompasses an onboard transmitting unit connected through mobile networks to a global data center. There’s a timer function that can be used to start battery-charging at a specific time (during off-peak hours), and a remote control function designed to let drivers monitor battery charge levels online or via an iPhone app. Nissan’s LEAF electric sedan is due set to roll out with integrated smart charging system next year. The iPhone app may or may not be ready to launch simultaneously, and it could be sold separately.
Pacific Northwest National Lab (DOE) Government Based on a distributed controller concept, PNNL’s Smart Charger Controller uses wireless Zigbee-based technology to connect the device to a smart meter, which then communicates to the utility’s back office. The controller can be installed on a smart power cord, a charging station or the vehicle itself. PNNL announced in April that it plans to license its Smart Charger Controller to companies. Communication network developers, power companies or automakers may commercialize the tech.