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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During the development phase, BMW worked with UC Davis to analyze data from test cars, says Rich Steinberg, BMW's manager of electric vehicles operations and strategy. BMW analyzed data on the battery, such as how turning on climate controls remotely while the car was connected to a charging station -- something you can do using Nissan's Carwings iPhone app -- impacted battery performance over the life of the test compared with not preheating or precooling.

To the BMW researchers' surprise, they found that most EV drivers tend to recharge at night, even if the EV is nowhere near empty. This habit will play well with the version of the Mini E that will be released in the United States. Leaving the car plugged in all night helps precondition the battery, which increases the car's driving range.

BMW was able to use this data, stored on a central server in Munich, to make design changes not just in the battery pack, but also in how the vehicles are made. For example, with the Mini E test, the company found that it could use lighter materials in construction that helped with overall range.

Reporting EV data on a website

Since electric cars are being developed with more IT involvement this time around, it will be possible for drivers to call up a report on their cars and see where they have driven and view battery performance over time. They can then use that information to make decisions about how they drive or even which route they take to work.

Nissan's LEAF tech overview
An overview of the technology support in the Leaf. Photo courtesy of Nissan.

Interestingly, the Chevy Volt already has a website that reports anonymized usage of battery data on each vehicle, including the current charge state and the range that's left on the battery; which charge mode an EV owner is using; and the vehicle's total lifetime EV driving compared to using only fuel. (The Volt is an extended-range vehicle that runs for about 40 or 50 miles on an electric motor and then recharges using an onboard gas engine.) In mid-2011, the site will provide richer data about driving efficiency, including how many miles have been driven on only electric power. For now, the company has released some individual driver stats, such as fuel economy and commute distance.

The Chevy Volt and other electric cars also work with the Microsoft Hohm service, which helps people monitor energy consumption in their homes and ties in to their electric company metering. It can show drivers how much power they've used for charging their EVs.

Gartner's Koslowski says these management sites are crucial to the success of the EV because they give the driver an inside look into power consumption. On a broader scale, they also show how IT can get a higher-level view of total power consumption. In fact, in terms of EV infrastructure, IT can help better manage the power usage from one central location, examine grid load and even offer drivers incentives, such as a credit on their bills for charging at set times. These ideas are in early planning phases as power companies wait to see whether EVs become a consumer phenomenon.

Managing energy delivery for EVs

One of the most exciting prospects for IT involvement in the EV industry relates to managing power delivery and consumption. Today, with gas-powered cars, the infrastructure is widespread but low-tech -- in other words, there isn't much precise data about where a given gallon of gas originates and how much fuel we have on hand.

"In the gasoline world, you currently don't have [a rich set of] information," says Mike Tinskey, a sustainability manager at Ford. "You don't know what customers are using in terms of their gas. You still see gasoline stations measuring their fuel tank levels using very large wooden measuring sticks. Understanding how much gas they have in the ground and in the refinery certainly is reliant on historical facts and figures to understand where demand is around the country."

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