The Answer to Electric Vehicle Range Anxiety: Mobile Tech

GM and Nissan are steadily beating their PR drums in the run up to the launch of the first two mainstream, highway-legal, electric vehicles, the LEAF and the Volt, to be sold in the U.S. later this year. We’ve taken both cars for a spin (Volt test drive video, LEAF test drive video) and one of the things that stood out the most in my mind after getting closeups with the cars, is how much the auto makers are leaning on cell phones, mobile technology and communication networks to help alleviate the “range anxiety” in the first-generation of electric vehicles.

Range anxiety? Because electric vehicles rely on a battery that holds a certain amount of power, and charging the vehicle in standard outlets takes hours (anywhere from four to a dozen), there’s a dedicated range inherent in battery-powered vehicles. For the series hybrid Volt, from GM, the electric range is 40 miles (a secondary engine kicks in after that to make its range “hundreds of miles”) and for the all-electric Nissan LEAF, the range is 100 miles (see our range comparison chart here). The fear for drivers that are used to being able to fill up their gasoline-powered cars at gas stations on every other block, is that they could be stranded somewhere with an empty battery and without a charge station.

Partly to combat this fear, both automakers have made significant investments into mobile technology, both in-vehicle navigation systems and services and mobile applications for cell phones. Last week when I drove the LEAF around the city of San Jose, California, Nissan’s Director of Product Planing for North America, Mark Perry, showed me the LEAF’s in-vehicle digital system called EV-IT that uses communication networks (via AT&T) and a dashboard to keep the driver constantly updated about the range of the vehicle and the closest charge point.

When you press a button on the LEAF’s steering wheel the dashboard shows the available range of the car, both what is optimal and the absolute outer limit. Another tab on the dashboard shows the top three closest charging stations and directions to the charge point. And yet another service shows the effects of the air conditioning on the range of the car (I turned off the AC and grabbed another 2 miles on my range).

The LEAF 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. To entice LEAF-owners to use the service, Nissan plans to roll the Internet, smart phone connectivity and advanced navigation into the base price of the LEAF.

The Volt also has a smart phone app that will enable drivers to control certain vehicle functions through their BlackBerry Storm, Droid or iPhone, including scheduling battery charge times, viewing whether or not the vehicle is plugged in, checking voltage at a charger, and getting text notifications of interruption or completion of a battery charge. GM will rely on its connected OnStar system as the heart of the Volt’s digital services, and plans to bundle in five years of OnStar (which would normally cost $1,500), a 7-inch touchscreen display, and a Bose audio system into the base Volt model.

There’s a variety of important reasons why GM and Nissan (and many others) are making an unprecedented effort and investment into the connected communications systems for their electric vehicles. Auto makers, utilities and car owners will use these connected systems to manage aspects of electric vehicle charging — like the rate of the charge, the location of the charge and the pricing of the electricity — in an entirely new way compared to gasoline-burning cars.

The next-generation of cars, in general, are also being influenced by the always-on, cell phone and gadget revolution, increasingly offering intuitive user interfaces, a web connection and a set of standard applications to help drivers navigate and manage fuel consumption. Loading cars with driver-facing tech could be key to boosting automakers’ margins on smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles.

But at the end of the day, I think one of the main reasons that auto makers are emphasizing the always-on connection in these new electric vehicles is to help drivers overcome the fear of being disconnected (for too long) from the power grid. Particularly for this first set of EVs that will arrive before a tipping point of electric vehicle charge points have been built out to comfort anxious drivers.  In that way, the IT networks that will connect the next-generation of green cars will be the safety nets that can digitally guide a driver to a chargepoint, and make sure that drivers aren’t carelessly driving out of their outer most range.

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IT Opportunities in Electric Vehicle Management