This is the third in a series of articles by Neal Gorevic and Haven Thompson that looks at electric vehicles and how automakers, as well as other players in the space, are planning/will need to plan on leveraging digital marketing and product development to help drive adoption for electric vehicle purchase and to help manage and support EV ownership.
As automakers continue to use digital experiences to engage with electric vehicle shoppers and owners, many companies outside of automotive manufacturing are turning to digital to help build the infrastructure that will support a world of electric vehicle drivers. From large multinational conglomerates to nimble startups, a number of companies around the globe are envisioning a world where not only is vehicle charging efficiently managed through digital devices, but where cars are networked, communicate with each other, and improve the overall driving experience through a digitally managed electricity network known as the smart grid. While the latter may be a further down-the-road proposition, many companies are looking to take an early lead in building the technology that will make owning an electric vehicle an everyday reality.
Building EV charging infrastructure
No matter how many electric vehicles are manufactured, broad consumer adoption will be dependent on accessibility to charging stations. One standout in charging station technology is General Electric’s WattStation, selected as one of the 2011 CES Best Innovation Honorees by PCWorld. With its smart grid-optimized design and GE’s broad distribution capabilities, the WattStation is poised to be an early leader in the EV infrastructure race. To help build awareness for the company’s WattStation product line (commercial-use WattStations are pictured above), as well as its other green industrial solutions, GE is turning to digital marketing to help educate consumers about the benefit of its charging product and why the smart grid matters. GE’s most recent digital campaign, ecomagination, encourages green entrepreneurs to submit ideas for a chance to win a grant from the company. In addition to educational videos and content, GE showcases many of the grant entrants on its ecomagination microsite.
Coulomb Technologies, another early leader in electric vehicle charging, is taking a data-driven approach to networking EV drivers. Through recent partnerships with major municipalities, such as Baltimore, Boston, Santa Barbara and Tampa, and with many direct partnerships with companies around the globe, Coulomb’s ChargePoint Network of charging stations is quickly expanding its networked reach. To help consumers navigate the growing ChargePoint Network, Coulomb is developing new mobile and desktop experiences to help drivers find the nearest charging station. Coupled with Coulomb’s ChargePass Card, electric vehicle owners can use the ChargePoint mobile application and/or website to manage their EV charge costs and keep track of vehicle status while charging.
Evolving the charging process
Palo Alto-based Better Place is looking beyond the charging station model and creating a network of battery-switch stations where electric vehicle drivers can swap out a battery instead of waiting for a charge. By simply replacing one battery for another, Better Place aims to remove the burden of waiting hours for a vehicle to charge, ultimately replicating the freedom of driving a combustion engine vehicle. To support its battery-switch model and help electric vehicle drivers locate swap stations and manage their charges, Better Place is developing telematics software for cars and mobile applications to find the closest station and showing charge options during route planning.
Better Place in-car software showing charge options during route planning.
Though the infrastructure challenges behind developing a battery swap network may be daunting, Better Place has already made a few large strategic alliances. In October 2010 the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission awarded nearly $7 million to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the city of San Jose and Better Place to demonstrate electric taxis. The program will provide a fleet of 61 electric taxis with switchable batteries and four battery-swapping stations in the Bay Area over the next three years.
To help combat the potential complexities of a charging process or battery-swapping experience, Wytheville, Va.-based Evatran is developing Plugless Power, a wireless charging floor pad that allows drivers to simply park over a charging mat to fuel up their vehicle. Like an electric toothbrush station, the Plugless Power charger uses induction charging, allowing electricity to automatically flow from the charging station to the car battery. Google is trialing a Plugless Power charging station, the first public release of the technology, at its Mountain View, Calif. headquarters.
Rolls-Royce debuted the 102EX Phantom at the Geneva Motor Show in March. Although there are no plans to develop a production variant, Rolls-Royce is hoping the experimental vehicle will generate feedback on alternative drivetrain technologies in ultra-luxury cars. Comments are being collected on the Electric Luxury microsite.
Taking this concept one step further, HaloIPT, which claims to have launched the world’s first wireless charger, envisions a future where charging pads are not only in garages and parking lots, but also embedded in roads so cars can be charged on the move. Beyond charging, HaloIPT sees an opportunity for its charging pad grid to tie drivers into a larger data network that can tell electric cars when there are traffic jams. While this networked-car grid is still a long-term vision, the Rolls-Royce 102EX Phantom, an experimental electric car revealed at the Geneva Motor Show in March, features the inductive charging system.
Empowering drivers through the smart grid
As smart grid technologies continue to develop, many companies in the energy-management sector are beginning to set their eyes on incorporating electric vehicle usage into their business models. One such company is Salt Lake City-based Control4, which aims to revolutionize home-energy management through a digital experience that uses data visualization to educate consumers about their energy consumption habits. Consumers can actively monitor their energy use through Control4’s web or mobile experiences. In January 2011, Control4 was engaged by the Ohio unit of American Electric Power to help increase awareness of the cost and impact of energy consumption. The selection of Control4 is part of AEP Ohio’s gridSMART Demonstration Project, which is intended to demonstrate the benefits of developing a smart grid for consumers that helps manage not only home and commercial devices, but hybrid and electric vehicle usage.
OPower helps homeowners cut their home-energy use by employing behavioral science.
A relative newcomer to the smart grid management space, OPower is approaching energy management from a slightly different angle. OPower aggregates energy usage data to let users know how efficient their energy usage is compared to neighbors and similar people. They then provide tips to help homeowners improve their energy usage. Like Control4, OPower allows users to access their usage data through a number of digital devices, including computer, smartphone or tablet. While OPower currently does not offer any electric vehicle-specific product offerings, the natural extension of crowd-sourced efficiency would translate well into the driving experience.
Like any emerging industry, electric vehicle infrastructure will continue to evolve and mature as companies learn more about electric vehicle ownership needs. As time goes on, there will likely be further experimentation with different ways of changing our world to support electric vehicles. Whether the future of electric vehicle infrastructure lies in vehicle charging stations or roads lined with inductive charging pads, we are at the beginning of a major transformation in what it means to drive, own and maintain a vehicle.
- WattStation, GE Energy Industrial Solutions
- 2011 CES Best of Innovations Honorees; PCWorld, 11.11.10
- Coulomb Technologies Expands ChargePoint American Program with the Addition of Six New Cities; Coulomb Technologies press release, 4.13.11
- ecomagination microsite, General Electric
- ChargePoint Network microsite, Coulomb Technologies
- Better Place
- In-car Software set, btrplc’s photostream, Flickr
- MTC Awards $33 Million in New Grants to Spur Innovations in Emissions Reduction; Metropolitan Transportation Commission press release, 10.27.10
- Plugless Power microsite, Evatran
- Google Installs Wireless EV Charging Station; Wired.com, 3.21.11
- Electric Luxury microsite, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars
- Ditch the Cord, Let the Road Charge Your EV; Wired.com, 11.22.10
- Wirelessly charging into the future, HaloIPT channel, YouTube
- So Simple, Your Chauffeur Can Use it; WSJ.com, 3.9.11
- Control4 Selected to Deploy Home Energy Management Solution for AEP Ohio’s gridSMART Demonstration Project; Control4 press release, 1.12.11
- Motivating Millions, One at a Time; OPower
Commercial-use WattStations image via the GE Energy Industrial Solutions website; Better Place in-car software screenshot via the company’s btrplc photostream on Flickr; 102EX Phantom vehicle image via the Rolls-Royce Motor Cars media site; neighbor comparison screenshot via the OPower website.