Green Cars Are the Platform, Now Come the Applications

Today forward-thinking developers are eying the iPad — tomorrow they’ll be focused on your family sedan. The next generation of electric cars will fuel up from a smart power grid, have one of several operating systems, will connect to broadband networks provided by wireless carriers and have a charge that’s controlled by software at a utility data center. These so-called connected cars will ultimately offer a next-generation platform for entrepreneurs and car makers to develop auto-focused applications.

The connected car platform and applications aren’t so far away. According to the group of U.S. and Canadian power grid operators who make up the ISO/RTO Council (IRC) and manage most of North America’s bulk electric grid, as many as 1 million plug-in vehicles could be deployed on the continent within five years to a decade.


For electric cars, connectivity to the web and data (enabled by on-board communication systems like Ford’s Sync or General Motors’ (s GM) OnStar, as well as off-board mobile devices) will be “required over and above what gas engines require,” according to Doug VanDagens, director of connected services for Ford. Apps can use data — about topography, traffic, battery and vehicle health, infrastructure availability, driving behavior — to help orient drivers in the nascent world of electric mobility, both in and out of their vehicle. (Ford’s Ed Pleet, Product & Business Development Manager, Connected Services, and Paul Pebbles, General Motors’ OnStar Chevy Volt Service Line Manager, will be speaking at our Green:Net event on April 29).

Navigation represents such a critical piece of the puzzle for EVs that research firm Frost & Sullivan predicts, “Unlike conventional vehicles,” for which telematics alerting drivers to points of interest remain “an expensive option, most hardware elements required for enabling these services will be built into the cost of the EV.” As an early example of this, Nissan (s NSANY) announced on Tuesday that its upcoming LEAF electric sedan will sell for just under $33,000 in the U.S., with standard features including Internet and smart phone connectivity, “advanced navigation,” and remote controls for heating, cooling and charging (elements of an iPhone app Nissan showed off in prototype in July).

The trend of cars growing increasingly connected is not limited to plug-in vehicles, however. Automakers like Ford and General Motors have invested heavily in in-vehicle communication systems (Ford Sync, OnStar) for models across their lineup. And at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Ford announced that it had cracked open its Sync platform, allowing a handful of “trusted partners” (Pandora, OpenBeak and Stitcher) to hook up their smartphone apps to vehicle controls.

The Importance of Being Open

The finance chief for London’s climate change program, Padmesh Shukla, explained in a panel last year that Sun Microsystems’ Java (s JAVA) platform — an ubiquitous system for software development for mobile devices, enterprise servers and the web — offers a model for the buildout of infrastructure for electric vehicles (in particular, he spoke about setting up guidelines for bidding on government projects).

The goal is to avoid picking one technology or company to have a monopoly on charging infrastructure, and instead foster development of common standards, tools and practices for developers and generally create an environment in which electric car companies can prosper.

Serving the Grid

The grid operators group IRC anticipates that as more vehicles come onto the grid, they will “transform from reliability assets,” (i.e. demand clusters likely to strain the grid), “to market assets,” helping to balance grid load and store energy from variable, renewable sources. In other words, vehicles will become a platform of sorts for grid services, requiring increasingly complex charging schedules, more frequent communications, forecasting of resources and validation of transactions.

Various entities taking on the role of aggregator — grouping together hundreds of plug-in vehicles to provide services like scheduled battery charging based on pricing information and total grid load — will be making investments in the coming years to provide these services. According to IRC, a typical aggregator will invest $70,000 for servers, engineering, network infrastructure, software and project management to support connectivity with a grid operator.

Electric vehicle infrastructure startup Better Place (whose VP of Global Utility Alliances Hugh McDermott will be speaking on our New Networked Car panel at Green:Net) represents one example of a company seeking to build a business partly on the framework of an automotive platform. Sidney Goodman, the company’s VP of Automotive Alliances, has explained to us (GigaOM Pro, subscription required) that Better Place wants to route subscribers to different charging stations based on factors including location, a battery’s state of charge and how crowded a given station is.

Long term, the company also aims to work with utilities to manage charging, with battery charging prioritized based on a user profile, your location (whether you’re at your own workplace, for example), or plugging in for a charge at another office building and likely to hit the road again in an hour.

Examples of lighter weight applications for a vehicle platform abound, with the automotive market already fueling new app stores and apps for smartphones (see our chart on 8 iPhone Apps for Car 2.0). ZipCar, the country’s largest car-sharing network, developed an iPhone app that enables customers to find and reserve cars in its network and even unlock vehicle doors. Nissan has created an iPhone app for its LEAF electric vehicle that includes a remote control function that’s supposed to let drivers monitor their battery charge levels.

If you want to learn more about the connected car as a platform and how developers need to tackle transportation, come listen to Paul Pebbles (General Motors’ OnStar Chevy Volt Service Line Manager), Hugh McDermott (Vice President, Global Utility Alliances for Better Place), Mark Perry (Director of Product Planning, Nissan), Ed Pleet (Product & Business Development Manager, Connected Services, Ford Motor Co.) and Saul Zambrano (Director, Integrated Demand-side Management Core Products, PG&E) (s PCG) at our Green:Net conference on April 29 in San Francisco.

Related reports on GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

The App Developer’s Guide to Working With Ford Sync

How to Build Better Apps for Electric Vehicles

Report: IT and Networking Issues for the Electric Vehicle Market