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Car tech: Electric vehicles get an IT assist

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

Tinskey says it will be easier to analyze EV data in terms of knowing where the electrons are coming from (pulling data from U.S.-based power companies) and where that power is going (by analyzing data from charging stations). Ford has already analyzed much of this data and has announced the cities in which it plans to deploy test cars for the upcoming Ford Focus EV, including Houston, Detroit and New York. Tinskey says Ford analyzed data such as power availability, driving habits and even climate conditions.

Mike Kuss is chief operating officer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and is a member of the Electric Vehicle Grid-Integration Team, a research group within the Department of Energy that works with public and private entities, including automakers. He says EV energy management is more than possible. His team currently tests EV trucks on a regular basis in Colorado to learn more about their electricity needs and how IT can be involved in adjusting routes to meet demand. For example, his team has looked at how fleet vehicle needs change when a route involves a lot of idling and driving in stop-and-go traffic.

"We actually watch the vehicles in real time; we can see how driving up a hill affects the drop in battery pack and energy remaining," Kuss says. "Based on how people actually drive, for thousands of people, we see that people are actually not using all the battery power. Every day of your life, you might not drive more than 50 miles; you use your car only occasionally for longer vacations and longer drives."

Kuss says owning a second car also dramatically impacts EV usage patterns. Someone might use an EV only for commuting, for example.

The data from these tests will be used to evaluate and plan how energy is used in cities, how much is available and what kinds of energy are used, including renewable power sources.

Creating a network operation center for EVs

Once an EV infrastructure was in place, it would be possible to have a network operations center (NOC) for electric cars, starting in major cities like San Francisco, which has already embraced an early infrastructure. Gartner's Koslowski says it may well take government involvement for this to happen, first to build charging stations, then to link them into a NOC that can monitor them all.

A NOC would help tie the actual energy needs of EV drivers to the existing power-generation supply in a city and could help planners map out longer-term energy needs as EV use becomes more common.

"A network operations center would mostly benefit electric utilities," says Tinskey. "So we'd expect that the utilities would be the catalyst if such a system were proposed." But because utilities are focused locally, expanding regional NOCs into a national phenomenon would be "a bit more of a challenge," he says.

A NOC for electric vehicles may prove critical, Koslowski says. He expects that EVs will account for up to 7% of all cars on the road by 2020, and that that percentage will be much higher by 2030. That means their impact on the grid will be much more substantial, and cities will need to know more about where the cars are driving, how to balance the power load, how to distribute charging stations and how to make sure charging is always available.

Koslowski says there is a great opportunity for IT to build the infrastructure, and especially the NOC concept, right from the start. A city with a NOC might be able to feed data to a driver about where to park and charge, or send alerts to drivers as the range of the car is decreasing.

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.

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.

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.


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