Susan Kuchinskas examines the potential for electric vehicle apps that offer drivers things to do—and ways to spend money—while charging
In November, Half Price Books unveiled its new electric vehicle charging station at one of its retail locations in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.
Later that month, the Cracker Barrel chain of family restaurants and gift shops announced that it would host charging stations at 24 of its 50 Tennessee locations.
Electronics retailer Best Buy plans to install charging stations at 12 of its superstores in the American West and Southwest by March.
Across the US, multiple players are building charging stations situated in or near retail and entertainment centers, so that EV drivers can make the most of their downtime by, say, browsing in a bookshop, enjoying a meal, or catching a film.
These companies are speeding ahead to lure EV drivers to their businesses, and telematics solutions will be essential to linking in-car navigation systems with local search and advertising services—and the revenue opportunities they represent.
Apps to support drivers while charging
“I saw it as a marketing opportunity to be the first store in north Texas to have a charging station,” says Kathy Doyle Thomas, executive vice president of Half Price Books.
Half Price Books coordinated the unveiling of its charging station with the launch of the Chevy Volt.
The first Volt was charged at her store and then driven to the state fair.
Cracker Barrel sees the installation of charging stations as providing an additional service to its customers.
“It’s another way of pleasing our guests,” says Cracker Barrel spokeswoman Julie Davis. “We see this as an increase in the guest experience, right in our parking lot.”
The restaurateur doesn’t expect a significant boost in traffic any time soon because there will be so few EVs on the road, but the entertainment value could be huge.
“We think guests in general will want to see this and understand the technology better by looking at it,” Davis says. “I can see people posing with the charger for photos.”
And as EV take-up increases, so will interest in retail locations with charging stations.
Would you like a latte with that charge, or do you want to go with cinnamon French toast and eggs?
ECOtality, the EV infrastructure and services provider responsible for the Cracker Barrel and Best Buy installations, offers the ability for its charging station hosts to program smartphone applications so that their logos appear on maps when drivers search for public charging stations.
Coulomb Technologies, provider of the ChargePoint Network, offers smartphone apps that help drivers find and navigate to unoccupied charging stations.
When drivers use the website or smartphone app to find a charging station, rolling the cursor over the station brings up additional information about the station, such as rates.
“The station owner can put any message they want on our webpage, smartphone, and station,” says Richard Lowenthal, CEO at Coulomb.
That opens the door for cross-promotions between station owners and nearby businesses; for example, the station owner could offer a discount coupon for the Half Price Books located in the same shopping center.
In addition, Lowenthal says, ChargePoint offers a loyalty program with RFID key fobs.
“Because of that, we can communicate with the drivers via SMS,” he notes, an ability that could in the future become another advertising medium.
A new source for marketing data
In time, networks of charging stations could provide a valuable new source of data for marketers.
ECOtality uses a process it calls EV Micro-Climate to analyze factors such as geographic location, distance to major interstates and transportation routes, distance to other EV Project charging facilities, and population density to determine the best locations for its quick-charging stations.
The company says data gathered from its Blink EV charging stations at the 12 Best Buy stores will provide a characterization of consumer charging behavior and identify potential incentives for EV host sites.
To date, OEMs and utility companies have not taken the lead when it comes to amenities and services for EV drivers.
At the moment, they are very much focused on dealing with ‘range anxiety’—the concern among drivers that their cars might run out of power in the middle of nowhere. (For more on this issue, see ‘Telematics and EVs: Reducing "range anxiety"’.)
In November, though, the Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA) launched GoElectricDrive.com, a website designed to provide consumers with information about buying, owning, and driving plug-in electric vehicles.
On GoElectricDrive.com, drivers are told they can “power while you shop, play, explore. PEVs can easily be charged at a public charging station while you shop, attend events, or see the sights.”
But the EDTA site makes no mention of ways drivers can figure out how to do that.
An apps market to help people see what’s around a charging station is therefore essential.
Chris Vournakis, project manager on plug-in electric vehicle readiness for Southern California Edison, which recently joined the EDTA, says the utility company’s primary focus is on the infrastructure side, not applications, although SCE’s opt-in portal could include rich information about public charging stations.
Auto manufacturers and utility companies expect that most charging will be done at home overnight; “Ultimately, the garage is the new gas station,” Vournakis says.
Smartphone apps will let people start or check the charging while they are tucked into bed.
But Airbiquity is one company that hopes to play a central role in providing a range of EV apps for when drivers are on the road.
Local search and ad opportunities
Airbiquity recently announced that its Green Vehicles Solution would be available in Europe in January.
The solution includes eco-routing, charging station locations, and reservation information.
Airbiquity vice president of marketing Leo McCloskey thinks most of these applications will initially be accessed before the driver gets into the car.
The information will then be sent to the vehicle systems.
He predicts that supplemental infotainment apps to support drivers while they’re charging will get serious in 2014 or 2015.
At that time, Airbiquity’s platform could connect with local search and advertising services to direct drivers to businesses that also offer charging. (For more on local searching, see ‘Telematics and local search: The next big thing’.)
We could see in-car navigation systems with the ability to search for a local business in the vicinity of a charging station, a capability that would allow drivers in unfamiliar areas to select a plug-in spot next to a bookstore, dry cleaner, or restaurant, for example.
“If I put a route from Los Angeles to northern California into the navigation service, and I’m somewhere on the route, the service may suggest some restaurants around here and offer me some coupons,” McCloskey suggests.
“And you’ll see a lot of these services come through on the EV side first, because EVs are the first always-connected cars.”
Telematics service providers might even be able to sell advertising, gaining some extra revenue for delivering that coupon. (For more on in-car advertising, see ‘Can telematics make ads profitable in cars?’.)
But before there can be a robust array of applications to help drivers decide when and where to charge, there needs to be more standardization, according to Mark Perry, director of product planning for Nissan.
Even the simplest and most obvious application—the ability to reserve time at a charging station for a point in the future—is hampered by the lack of standards, he says.
While the industry has standardized the actual plug-in receptacles, “The question will be: Do we have a common set of communication protocols and information that gets passed or, in the worst case, many variations?”
Half Price Books already is seeing a return on investment, according to Doyle Thomas.
Pointing out that it only costs her company approximately $0.50 to charge a car, she says, “Research shows that the longer someone is in your retail store, the more they spend. Fifty cents to get a customer into our store for an hour, that’s a very good deal.”
Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.