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Telematics and smart grids: The business opportunity

Andrew Tolve reports on how telematics solutions can extend the benefits of smart grid technology to electric vehicles.

As global energy usage continues to surge, utilities have embraced ‘smart energy’ initiatives to help relieve the strain on the grid.

So-called ‘smart switches’ allow utilities to quickly navigate around faults to minimize outages while ‘smart meters’ let them tweak home thermostats and appliances during peak hours.

Electric vehicles present a new challenge; charging one EV can be equivalent to plugging in another house on the grid.

Imagine if you have four neighbors arriving home from work and plugging in their EVs at the same time.

“That transformer on your telephone pole, you could exceed its capacity,” says Steve Wollenberg, co-founder and vice president of business development at Automatiks, a Silicon Valley start-up.

And even if you don’t blow the fuse, you could break the bank with big monthly energy bills.

Telematics solutions can help, says Wollenberg, by extending the smart grid to EVs.

“Utilities have created the smart grid to connect all the way from their back office down to the home,” he says.

“We do the last ten feet of getting from the electric meters on the side of the home to the car sitting in the garage.”

Charging ahead

Automatiks has developed an embedded solution that communicates information between the EV and the utility to determine the most efficient and inexpensive time to charge the battery.

Let’s say a driver gets home from work at 7 p.m., a time of peak energy strain for the local utility company.

All around the city TVs are popping on, ovens are warming up, air conditioners are humming.

The telematics solution will delay charging until the utility company gives it the go-ahead—most likely in the middle of the night, when energy use is low.

“You save money,” says Wollenberg, “and the utility is happy because you’ve helped them offset the peak.”

What if an emergency strikes at 10 p.m.?

Drivers can create a profile that stipulates numerous charging details, like the battery’s permanent minimum charge level, the car’s expected time of departure in the morning, and the driver’s weekly schedule, including weekend versus weekday habits.

And that’s just the basic stuff, says Wollenberg: “Since the car is connected to the Internet and back to our server, and your smartphone is connected to our server, we can provide remote control capability.”

Not only can drivers control the state of charge from afar, they can check the in-car temperature and, if it’s roasting, turn on the AC so they won’t have to waste battery power on that same function once they’re on the road.

Telematics are vital to EV success

Automatiks and Better Place are currently the two main telematics companies in the EV space.

Better Place has developed solutions similar to Automatiks, though they envision an additional battery swap program that will allow drivers—on top of smart charging at home—to swap batteries at charging stations along the road.

OEMs like GM with OnStar are pursuing solutions as well.

Regardless of their source, telematics concepts will be vital to the success of EVs in the coming years, says Haukur Asgeirsson, manager of power systems technologies at DTE Energy.

“It’s really important that this new appliance that’s coming to town charge at night,” he says.

“We don’t want to add to our peak when our electric grid is stressed.”

In the US, most utilities are actively supporting the development of telematics solutions for the EV space, he says, including Southern California Edison, Duke and Progress, AEP, and conEdison.

Through the Electric Power Research Institute, DTE has joined a collaborative fund with other utilities and OEMs like Ford and GM to make the transition to EVs smoother.

“This is really about marrying telecommunications and the electric grid together to make this new system operate more efficiently,” says Asgeirsson.

That’s a level of connectivity that wasn’t around fifteen years ago when the first suite of electric vehicles came out in California.

It’s easy to forget that GM invested $1 billion into the EV1 back in the 1990s, and other OEMs were eager to follow.

But batteries were big and weak, and the infrastructure simply wasn’t there to enable reliable charging.

Now, batteries are half the volume and weight, and telematics solutions are poised to handle the rest.

“It really looks more real than it has in the past,” says Asgeirsson.

EV telematics gets real

DTE Energy and Automatiks ran a joint field deployment last fall in Detroit, marking the first real-world action for EV telematics concepts.

The trial was a success, and other pilots from OEMs, tier 1 suppliers, and utilities are currently under way.

In early 2011, the first series-production electric vehicles will hit the market, and telematics services will follow them in small volumes, says Wallenberg.

“2012 is when you start to see the hockey-stick growth,” he adds.

Nearly every automotive OEM has made an announcement of a plug-in vehicle to be released that year.

The US and the EU have both stated the goal of having a million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2020.

Wallenberg says that with this growth, telematics companies will likely hand over the business of in-vehicle hardware to the tier 1 suppliers and instead focus fully on the data.

“The future of our business is taking information from the vehicle and putting it out to the various players,” he says.

“It should go to the end-user on a website or a smartphone, to the electric utility so they can analyze usage, to the battery OEMs so they can see how batteries operate over time, and the automotive OEMS so they can see if there’s diagnostic information they need to react to. That’s the future of our system.”

For everything you need to know about smart grids, check out the Smart Grid Technology Conference and Expo in San Diego on June 2 and 3.

Click here for a podcast with Jeff Curry, head of global product marketing at Better Place.

Andrew Tolve is a regular contributor to TU.

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