Jan Stojaspal reports on developments in telematics that are bringing EVs closer to mainstream adoption
The caginess of the car manufacturers when it comes to plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) is hardly accidental, says Peter Fuss, senior advisory partner for automotive at Ernst & Young, comparing the electric car of the future with the smartphone.
Today, the smartphone is more or less a commodity, a black box with a touch screen, and the value is largely realized through services that run on it. Unless car manufacturers start thinking about this, Fuss warns, they run the risk of becoming producers of black boxes on four wheels and leaving most of the profits to computer or Internet companies.
“Start thinking for a second about a car without a combustion engine,”Fuss says. The engine is “a very important emotional factor … What is then the new emotional factor? It’s the connectivity through telematics and access to information.”
Research bears this out. Already the telematics package is shaping up to be far more important for buyers of PEVs than the vehicle’s drive train, Pike Research says in a December 2011 report.
Little wonder, many car manufacturers are not rushing to share their data and are instead looking for alliances that will not only help offset their high research and development costs but also ensure that they remain in the drivers seat of what is shaping up to be a brand-new ecosystem.
In March, Daimler and China’s electric battery and car manufacturer BYD announced a joint venture to produce a new all-electric vehicle under the DENZA brand. BMW and PSA Peugeot Citroën have teamed up to work on hybrid and electric cars. Bosch is doing its best to learn from battery companies. And a number of carmakers, including Daimler and Renault, are branching out to explore new alliances with telcos and utility companies.
If cars without transmission, drive shaft and with an engine the size of a large watermelon are new to the automakers, then imagine their unease at having utility companies for partners. Yet it is a crucial step in the evolution of smart charging and also in the OEMs drive to provide a complete service package.
Renault’s Darmouni calls it a “triple play approach” in that the PEV manufacturer of the future will not only be expected to supply the car and the supporting services, but also access to the energy, whether by providing a home-charging solution or an energy plan a local utility. The smart grid is still very much a work in progress, but already two very distinct approaches to integrating PEVs are emerging. (For more on smart grids, see How telematics can help smart grids talk to cars  and Telematics and smart grids: The business opportunity .)
Smarter smart grids
Mennekes, a German producer of charging infrastructure, is betting on intelligent charge points to act as matchmakers between a PEV’s energy needs and the needs of the grid. In one pilot project in the Hamburg area, Mennekes tested 150 such charge points with a fleet of Mercedes-Benz and Renault cars and powered them using excess energy from wind turbines operated by Vatenfall.
The problem with this approach is that each charge point costs more than €10,000 to purchase and install and additional money needs to be spent programming a unique interface for the local utility’s grid management system. Now multiply that by 50 to 100, as this is how many different interfaces are likely to be needed for Germany’s 900 different utilities.
“Every utility has a different business model; they are, in fact, searching for business models,” says Volker Lazzaro, general manager of Mennekes. “It is a wide open field at this time.” Still, Lazzaro is convinced it pays to be an early mover. “Only an early mover has a chance to be a brand in this market and this is what we want to be,” he says.
A much cheaper solution is being pioneered by Continental as part of VLOTTE, a public-private partnership aiming to bring electric mobility to Vorarlberg, an Austrian region of pristine glacial lakes, stunning views of the surrounding Alps and excess of hydroelectric power.
The partnership includes the Austrian utility company illwerke vkw Vorarlberg, the federal government, Austrian Climate and Energy Fund, local public transport system, Energy Institute and Insurance of Vorarlberg, the Austrian automobile association ÖAMTC, Raiffeisen Leasing and the Vienna University of Technology.
Since 2011, more than 350 PEVs have been sold as part of a complex leasing scheme that includes extended warranty, vehicle maintenance, free access to public charging stations and even tickets for public transportation. According to Herbert Halamek, key project manager for Continental’s eMobility solutions, anyone driving more than 40 kilometers a day will save money with a PEV.
What Continental developed is an intelligent charging solution that is built into the car, as opposed to being part of the charge point, thus making smart charging accessible through any regular power outlet.
At the moment, Continental’s AutoLinQ for EV, as the solution is called, is capable of remotely managing an electric vehicle’s charge cycle, though this has to be done, for the time being, manually, either by the car owner or fleet operator. But an upgrade due out in late 2013 will automate the process by interfacing directly with illwerke vkw Vorarlberg’s smart grid management system.
Automated smart charging systems
In many ways, Continental’s investment is already paying off in the lessons learned. The company, for example, knew that drivers and fleet operators preferred a largely automated smart charging system, but it wrongly assumed they would at the very least like to set a general framework for how it should happen; e.g., the car needs to be 100 percent charged at seven every morning.
It turns out “there seems to be a tendency towards a more sophisticated system that basically requires no information from the user,” Halamek says. “If the system gets enough time to learn, the user won’t even recognize it [is at work]. It would be fully automatic.”
Another lesson learned was that utility companies have no need for the car to supply energy back to the grid during peak times. “You feel it might be necessary to feed back energy in order to have a positive effect on the energy balance,” Halamek says. It turned out the same effect could be achieved by managing the number of vehicles that are charged at any one time. “That means you can change the power load in both directions, provided you always have some vehicles that are not full and are not charging and some that are charging,” he says. (For more on PEVs and energy management, see EV telematics: Is home energy management the next big thing?  and Telematics: Connecting the car to the home .)
This insight had the added benefit in making it possible to eliminate DC to AC converters that would either add weight to the vehicle or cost to the charging infrastructure.
Despite the many advances in electric mobility over the past few years, Ernst & Young’s Fuss cautions against choosing any clear winners at this point. “The development of an advanced power train is like a marathon run,” he says. “It’s important who is crossing the line after 42 kilometers and not who is leading after one or two or three kilometers.”
Read Telematics and emerging electric vehicle technology, part I .
Jan Stojaspal is a regular contributor to TU.
For more on PEVs, see Industry insight: Electric vehicles  and Industry insight: Telematics, electric vehicles and the connected home .
For all the latest telematics trends, check out Telematics India and South Asia 2013  on April 17-18 in Bangalore, India, Insurance Telematics Europe 2013  on May 7-8 in London, Data Business for Connected Vehicles Japan 2013  on May 15-16 in Tokyo, Telematics Detroit 2013  on June 5-6, Content & Apps for Automotive Europe 2013  on June 18-19 in Munich, Insurance Telematics USA 2013  on September 4-5 in Chicago, Telematics Russia  2013 on September 9-10 in Moscow, Telematics LATAM 2013 in September in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Telematics Japan 2013 on October 8-10 in Tokyo and Telematics Munich 2013  on November 11-12.
For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Report , Human Machine Interface Technologies  and Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics .