Green:Net: What's Standing in the Way of the New Networked Car

It’s a testament to how exciting and likely the idea of a networked car is that a panel full of experts at Green:Net chose to focus their attention on the trials, tribulations and pitfalls of the future of the automotive industry. No boosterism for us, thanks!

As the car becomes a platform, powered up with electricity and connected via networks, here’s what needs to happen, according to our panel of representatives from the electric car industry:

  • A standard communication protocol to react to dynamic pricing. Mark Perry of Nissan North America says his company isn’t going to wait around for one, though. “Right now it’s not done, but we’re in the launch mode, we have to lock and load,” he said.
  • Car owners avoiding massive power usage peaks. Automakers and utilities alike want to urge drivers towards off-peak charging. “It’s all about doing it at the right time, but in pure aggregate there’s enough power to do this for lots of vehicles,” said Perry. On the plus side, off-peak rates are the cheapest, and wind tends to blow at night too, said Saul Zambrano of California utility PG&E. Any incremental peak load periods would be a serious issue, Zambrano warned.
  • Smart grid intelligence. Hugh McDermott of Better Place said the electric vehicle infrastructure needs to include centralized operations, tracking outages and system disturbances and communicating prices to customers. “There’s a whole chain of distributed intelligence. Ultimately if we’re going to drive mass adoption it’s got to be easy for the consumer,” he said.
  • Data security and privacy assurances. “News stories about loss of data or loss of privacy would be daggers in the heart of what we’re trying to do,” said Edward Pleet of Ford. Security will be especially important at scale, said McDermott. “Millions of EVs would be an enormous amount of load. “Something malicious would be analogous to a utility being hacked.”
  • A good user experience that’s not to complicated. “Do you want a price-change signal every five minutes? I don’t,” said Perry. “What we’re doing in the EV space is an engineers dream,” said Pleet. “You’re going to really alienate people who just want to get in and drive.”
  • A user experience that’s also not distracting or unsafe. Pleet said that the Ford Sync platform will be picking partner applications carefully, emphasizing voice control and functionality that’s well mapped to vehicle controls instead of directing drivers back to the tiny screens on their mobile phones
  • Operation at scale. This is especially important for Better Place, which is looking to invert the model of car ownership and install massive sets of charging stations. With major projects in Israel, Denmark and Japan, getting to California will take major partnerships (which McDermott said are underway). “We’ve got to walk before we can run, and we’re sort of in walking mode right now,” he said.
  • Third-party access for the grid. Zambrano of PG&E, which as a utility supports third parties, pointed to California’s work in leading the regulatory charge to define participation among stakeholders.
  • Ease of home charging set-up. “Public infrastructure for charging networks is absolutely necessary,” said Perry. “But the Achilles’ heel is home charging. That’s where this is going to work or not work. It needs to be three- to five-day business process or we as consumers won’t have patience. (See more on this topic from an earlier panel about utilities and electric cars.)
  • Longer driving ranges. Better Place looks at battery swaps as the only way to feasibly go above the 100-mile range, given fast charging takes a while, degrades batteries faster and could impact the grid poorly. However this was a point of disagreement for the panel; the carmakers argued that there are car buyers will seek various solutions for various needs. “At some point will learn which is best model,” said Paul Pebbles of General Motors. “As the market develops we will look at any opportunity that makes sense.”

The one potential challenge the panelists fended off was the question of the cost of electric cars. Perry said that the Nissan Leaf will cost $20,000 after rebates in California, below average new car spending. Zambrano pointed out that off-peak charging costs are the equivalent of dollar-per-gallon gasoline.

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