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This is the year of the electric vehicle rollout. Up to now we have seen glimpses of what a well-designed EV looks like: the sporty Tesla Roadster, the all-electric Nissan Leaf and the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt. But in the next 12 months, offerings in the EV space will explode with everything from a long-awaited plug-in Prius to the first all-electric SUV, from Tesla, due for a first showing on Thursday. And the most innovative aspect of this flurry may not be that the vehicles are electric but that they are ushering in the era of the connected car and an entirely new relationship between a driver and his vehicle.
The term “connected car” and its sidekick “telematics” are thrown around a lot, and the gist of the two terms is that information (data) can be transported across locations to enhance the driving experience. The most obvious example of this is GPS navigation, in which a GPS receiver constantly communicates vehicle positioning to provide a driver with location information.
But automakers and wireless carriers have much bigger plans. On the table is everything from in-vehicle Wi-Fi to app stores on your dashboard to autonomous driving (a car driving itself, either in an emergency to avoid an accident or full time, for all you Jetsons fans). Built into these future visions is the fundamental shift in the consumer mind from viewing a car as a product meant to get us where we need to go toward a consumer technology product that we intimately interact with and is part of our lives in much the same way that smartphones have become part of our lives.
EVs are on the front lines of this shift because drivers are becoming more active in their own energy management. They need to know the state of their battery even when they are not in the car, and they access this information via their smartphone and through web portals. They also need to schedule vehicle charging, often based on peak demand utility pricing incentives, and they now can even control the AC from their phones. The issue of scheduled charging is so important that Roger Melen, who helps run the Toyota Infotechnology Center and appeared on an EV panel last week with me at the Telecom Council meeting, is tasked with figuring out a communications system among an EV, a smartphone and the utility grid. That is so the utilities can effectively schedule EV charging in a way that will manage the coming spike in electricity demand from electric vehicles on the grid.
There are other technological shifts that EVs are inaugurating. The EV is the first type of car that offers the possibility of being well studied after it leaves the lot. That is because future electric vehicles will have to transmit real-time sensor data about an EV’s battery back to the cloud so utilities know when to schedule charging. The side effect of this is that usage patterns for EVs will become more clear, opening up the possibility of better traffic control and a lot of new vehicle data. Drivers are even competing through social media applications to be the most energy-efficient. Finally, the Nissan Leaf is one of the first cars to have shipped with an embedded SIM card, similar to a cell phone, which could lead to the often-dreamed-about possibility of having one phone number or wireless data account running on multiple connected devices, an important next step if the Internet of things is going to materialize.
These are all important trends that don’t necessarily point to great sales for EVs, since those sales likely will take a long time to materialize, assuming we don’t see a breakthrough in battery power or pricing. Rather, they point to a retraining of consumers around expecting active engagement with a vehicle. Internal combustion engines started with analog controls, while electric vehicles have always required digital controls, making it logical that digital interfaces like cell phones can be the tools for interactive engagement with our cars. Energy management is one of the first places where that interaction is required, and it will be an effective test case to show automakers the possibilities for how drivers can interact with what was once a machine built on steel and pistons and mufflers. But it is becoming a consumer technology product just as likely to wind up at CES as the Detroit Auto Show.