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

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Mainly, the goal is to help drivers understand more about the onboard charge state and range, so they can decide whether they want to start driving. Nissan also sends a monthly update on power usage patterns via e-mail. With that data, a driver can change a commuter route or adjust climate settings and see how that impacts the battery.

Gregg Hedgren, the EV project manager at Nissan, says the company uses algorithms to look for patterns in the EV data, such as the total miles driven per charge on average and how climate controls, including air conditioning, impact range. "We're mainly focused on the unique aspects of the EV, and there is not a tremendous amount of data [collected for EVs] beyond battery and powertrain," he says. "We will continue to refine our research and algorithms, such as how frequent acceleration impacts range, and feed that data back to the driver."

For now, charging station location data is updated only once per quarter, says Hedgren, and that's often enough in this early phase of the EV infrastructure.

However, Nissan is looking at how it can partner with power companies to help drivers not just find charging stations, but also reserve them during prime charging times or even prepay for charging from the car. Another goal is to work together to help balance the overall power utility load.

Helping design the electric vehicle

IT has also been heavily involved in the design of the electric car itself. This includes developing software for charging sensors and creating industry standards for charging ports.

One of the best examples of how IT helped with designing an electric car is the Chevy Volt. GM deployed a fleet of 350 preproduction Volts to early testers, many of them GM employees, and captured data from each one. In part because of the data analysis, GM was able to design the Volt in just three years rather than the usual five.

According to Jeff Liedel, OnStar's CIO, Chevy captured data, including the current charge state and trouble codes from the engine. (OnStar is owned by General Motors, as is Chevrolet, and provides the in-car safety systems that connect drivers with emergency and towing services, among other things.) Many of the onboard EV control modules are brand-new so, Liedel says, it was very important to capture specific data from the modules, including real-time diagnostics that showed how each module was performing. Then engineers were able to track and record this, analyze a data warehouse of diagnostic information, and tweak the design.

Chevy's EV mobile app
OnStar's mobile application uses a real-time data connection to interact with the Volt and perform tasks, from setting the charge time to unlocking the doors. The app will be available for the Droid by Motorola, Apple's iPhone, and BlackBerry Storm smartphones. Photo courtesy of OnStar.

This kind of IT involvement is not new -- OnStar has captured test-fleet data from gas-powered cars before -- but the difference with the Volt was how quickly designers captured the data and made changes.

GM used IBM Rational software for logging changes, understanding the sensor data and communicating with the team about the changes. Designers used Compuware software to run computations on the collected data, to determine, for example, how often the car needed to be charged.

"We collected on the order of hundreds of individual pieces of data from each battery pack during the test fleet development," says Liedel. "We fed that data directly back to the individuals working in our battery lab. It's all about life-cycle testing and about correlating the results in the lab to real-world field trials as we developed the vehicle." The team also considered how charging affected battery performance for the cars that were operating in hot vs. cold climates, he explains.

For its part, BMW took a similar approach in designing the Mini E production car and BMW ActiveE concept car, which the German automaker will use for field trials this summer.

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