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Car tech: Electric vehicles get an IT assist

By John Brandon
April 12, 2011 06:00 AM ET

Controlling security for EV communication

Once IT is involved in analyzing data streaming from a Chevy Volt, for example, or helping drivers determine where the closest charging station is located, another technical consideration arises: security for all of this communication. These concerns involve the privacy of the EV data itself, hackers' ability to disrupt communication, and the financial transactions required for charging the car at the local mall.

Ralf Oestreicher, a strategy manager at Mercedes-Benz, says security is a major factor in building the EV infrastructure. He recounted the company's current strategy for the E-Cell prototypes it has deployed in Europe (including a Mercedes AMG E-Cell). For charging purchases, he says, the data is encrypted at the point of charging and stays that way back to the clearinghouse that handles the transaction. Yet the clearinghouse can decrypt and relay only the part of the data that is related to an approved charging station provider -- it decrypts data separately for each provider, rather than using one IT system to decrypt data for every provider. In that way, the driver's data is never aggregated across all charging stations, which could expose it to theft.

Nissan's energy-consumption system
The Leaf's system shows the rate of energy consumption by the motor, cabin conditioning systems and audio-visual system. It also projects range with and without cabin conditioning. Photo courtesy of Nissan.

Standards are another area where IT can help. Ford's Tinskey says this is still in the early stages. Each individual data silo in the EV infrastructure is technically advanced -- the power companies use a smart grid, the charging stations send data to the EVs about location, and even the car itself uses a standard connection for charging. But the standards for communicating among these silos are not yet in place.

Tinskey says one power utility might have proprietary standards for use within its own utility, but there are no industrywide standards today for communicating the power level of an EV to any utility on the grid, or for aggregating the data about where and when you can get the cheapest charge from any vendor and any power company.

The lack of standards is both a blessing and a curse for EV security because there is a potential to develop secure standards the right way, with participation from multiple vendors, says Tinskey. Fortunately, the EV industry has shown that it is willing cooperate on standards -- for example, the SAE J1772 charging standard is a five-pin plug used on the most popular electric cars, such as the Volt and the Leaf. This plug can transmit data securely from the car, including charge state and range.

Chevy's Volt charging station
The 2011 Chevrolet Volt's 16 kWh battery can be recharged using a 120V or 240V outlet. Photo courtesy of Chevrolet.

Industrywide standards for handling EV data might be slow to develop, Tinskey says, depending on how many people buy the cars over the next few years.

To be sure, the technology to help EVs is mostly in place. Much of what's still needed involves developing the communication between charging station providers, the grid, and the new makes and models. Car companies are already analyzing the rich data from drivers; the next steps will be to use this data to develop better cars and an even more robust EV infrastructure.

John Brandon is a former IT manager at a Fortune 100 company who now writes about technology. He's written more than 2,500 articles in the past 10 years. Follow his tweets at @jmbrandonbb.

Read more about Emerging Technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.



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