The Nissan LEAF: Connected by AT&T

During our test drive of Nissan’s (s NSANY) all-electric LEAF this week (video clip) Nissan’s Director of Product Planing for North America, Mark Perry, told us that the car giant is working with AT&T (s T) to provide a connection for digital services for the car, like battery charge monitoring and being able to find the nearest charging station. There is a carrier signal that is actually transmitting the information up to a satellite and then to Nissan’s data centers said Perry, who also confirmed with us that the cars will use AT&T’s cellular network for that connection.

When I asked why did Nissan choose to work with AT&T, Perry explained that AT&T uses the global standard for mobile communications known as GSM, which can be used internationally. By contrast, Verizon (s VZ), for example, uses the U.S.-specific standard based on CDMA. We didn’t want to have to do all that extra development for two different standards across the world, explained Perry. Nissan, a Japanese giant, plans to sell the LEAF worldwide.

Nissan has built an impressive IT and mobile connected car in the LEAF. Announced back in July 2009, Nissan calls its system EV-IT, and it encompasses an onboard transmitting unit connected through mobile (AT&T) networks to a global data center. In-vehicle IT services include being able to see the radius that the car can drive with the current battery state of charge, as well as being able to identify the closest available electric vehicle charger on a map.

The car also has a dedicated iPhone application and LEAF-owners will be able to remotely monitor the state of charge of the battery, and can pre-heat or pre-cool the car. And as we all know, the iPhone — one of the most important platforms for mobile application development — is still exclusively for the AT&T network.

Nissan also plans to roll the Internet, smart phone connectivity and advanced navigation into the base price of the LEAF, which at $33,000 will be one of the most low cost highway legal mainstream electric cars. Perry told me in an interview at the Plug-In 2010 event this week that he expects the first wave of LEAF-buyers (it goes on sale in December) to be gadget-savvy, always-connected early adopters. Similarly, competitor General Motors (s GM) plans to roll five years of its OnStar service and OnStar Mobile App into the $41,000 base price for its upcoming plug-in Chevy Volt.

Nissan’s partnership with AT&T is another example of the larger move in the auto industry (helped along by software companies) toward what we’ve described as the era of Car 2.0. The idea behind Car 2.0 and Nissan’s IT system is that the next generation of electric cars will link to the power grid and communication networks and function a lot like consumer electronics.

According to a report by analyst John Gartner we published on GigaOM Pro (subscription required), utilities and EV-service providers will steadily increase their investments in IT related to electric car management over the next five years. Gartner predicts that electric vehicle supply equipment — including wall-mounted charge points for homes as well as commercial charging stations — will grow to a nearly $400 million industry by 2015.

For more research on electric vehicles and IT check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Report: IT and Networking Issues for the Electric Vehicle Market