Car tech: Electric vehicles get an IT assist

Tech is driving the infrastructure needed to charge these cars and to optimize power from the grid

A new IT challenge is emerging: building a vast infrastructure for electric vehicles, or EVs. Information technology is needed to give the electric car a much-needed push -- handling the vast data processing required to optimize power utilization from the generation plant all the way down to an individual owner's garage. These functions are needed to make the new cars successful, analysts say.

New EV models from Chevy and Nissan, with Ford and BMW following this summer, can already connect to a smart grid and transmit a wealth of data about battery usage and driving patterns over 3G. Toyota and Microsoft jointly announced in early April that they are co-developing an Azure-based service to provide data to Toyota EV drivers.

"IT can analyze the onboard and off-board energy management required for electric cars and help the driver find the next charging station," says Thilo Koslowski, vice president for automotive at Gartner. Other tasks tech can assist with, he says, include reserving a charging station, routing drivers to charging stations and starting the billing process to pay for the car's charging, as well as controlling the power load for electric utilities. "We can also analyze driving behavior and decide where to put stations," he adds.

Car tech

If any of this sounds familiar, it's because we've been down this road before. In the late 1990s, General Motors introduced the first production EV from a major automaker, called the EV1. It was doomed from the start. A documentary about the vehicle presented a few theories about why it failed, but one major reason was that IT was not prepared for a major transition from gas-powered cars to those that juice up on a power cord.

According to several carmakers and those who follow the auto industry, this time IT appears ready for the electric car. Here's how information technology will make sure you can make it to work on battery power and locate a charging station.

Addressing range-anxiety issues

The auto industry uses the term "range anxiety" for good reason. Electric cars can go only about 50 to 100 miles before they need to be recharged, and there are precious few charging stations -- there are only a few dozen in San Francisco, considered a major hub of EV activity, for example. This hurdle of making sure drivers can find a station is the most critical for the EV to succeed.

"The ownership experience for electric cars has to be as comfortable and comparable to an internal combustion engine as possible," says Koslowski, explaining that if EVs do become popular, the need for infrastructure management will shift from being somewhat needed to critical.

The car companies know full well that EV infrastructure is in an early stage, so they are developing systems that help relieve some of the range anxiety.

Nissan's driving range map
The LEAF displays the charging points within the area of the battery's range. Photo courtesy of Nissan.

The Nissan Leaf, for example, runs only on electric power and has a range of about 100 miles. It uses a system called Carwings that's based on Microsoft Windows Embedded Automotive 7. Through an in-dash system, the driver can plan a trip and determine whether he will find electric charging stations along the way and where they are. Existing EV stations are most often located at gas stations. Carwings also works on the iPhone and shows the current charge level, or state, so the driver can make decisions about routes before even getting into the car. The tool also lets the driver set climate controls to preheat or precool the car while it's being charged so that in cold weather, for instance, the heat is already flowing.

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