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Electric Cars Meet the Cellular Network

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The new wave of electric cars that are hitting the market will be connected cars, both via a power cord, but also through the increased use of communication networks. And increasingly that connection is looking like a cellular network. The latest example of this comes from Sprint (s S), which is providing the connection for Ecotality’s Blink electric car charging stations.

In the telco world, this type of connectivity is called machine-to-machine networks, because there are no cell phone-toting consumers in the equation, but just pipes linking machines to the computers of service operators. Cellular companies are increasingly turning to machine-to-machine networks for a variety of reasons including that machine-to-machine services often have lower data needs (the SMS pill service in this instance), compared to, say, bandwidth crunching iPhone users.

Machine-to-machine connectivity is also a needed area of expansion in a saturated wireless market like the U.S. As Stacey on GigaOM reported, the nation’s two largest carriers added more connected devices in the second quarter of 2010 than postpaid subscriptions, according to data from wireless analyst Chetan Sharma. Cell phone penetration in the U.S. has surpassed 100 percent, if you discount children younger than five.

Along with smart meters and the smart grid, electric vehicles and EV charging stations will be a hot area for telcos in the coming years. Already, as we reported last Summer, Nissan has turned to AT&T to connect the digital services for the all-electric Nissan LEAF, one of the first mainstream EVs on sale in the U.S.

AT&T’s LEAF connection supports services like battery charge monitoring and being able to find the nearest charging station (to help with range anxiety). AT&T’s connection transmits information from the LEAF up to a satellite and then to Nissan’s data centers.

Ecotality will be using the Sprint network for billing, device and service management, and to manage information over the distributed Blink Network that Ecotality will be building across the U.S. Ecotality plans to install 15,000 Level 2 chargers and over 300 fast charging ports this year.

According to a report by Pike Research analyst John Gartner which we published on GigaOM Pro (subscription required), utilities and EV-service providers will steadily increase their investments in IT related to electric car management over the next five years. Gartner predicts that electric vehicle supply equipment — including wall-mounted charge points for homes as well as commercial charging stations — will grow to a nearly $400 million industry by 2015.

New internal combustion cars will also be getting increased connections. Vehicles are now “packed with up to 100 million lines of computer code,” and have “at least 30 microprocessor-controlled devices,” pointed out the New York Times last year. Many automakers already offer services based on network connections, like location-based navigation (enabled by a GPS system) or GM’s OnStar System which is based on a cellular connection.

The phone companies and the car makers will also have a battle on their hands when it comes to the in-car connection — or how the driver accesses connected infotainment services (from directions to news to music). Car companies want to attract drivers to an added vehicle-embedded services, like GM’s OnStar, while phone companies will want to center of the connected service to come from the phone itself, while the car is just the dock for the phone. Expect this relationship to get interesting in 2011.

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