Why Nissan Tapped Microsoft for the Electric LEAF

When it came time for Nissan (s NSANY) to set specifications for the infotainment system in its LEAF sedan, an electric car coming out in December, the automaker knew it wanted two things: more info and less “tainment,” according to Mark Perry, Director of Product Planning for Nissan North America.

The idea is to make information about energy usage and driving range readily available and easy to grasp, he said, because “We believe any worries go away if you have answers to your questions.” The platform for this worry-squelching system, it turns out, will be provided by Microsoft (s MSFT), with its Windows Embedded Automotive software.

Unveiled this week at the SAE Convergence conference in Detroit, the latest version of Windows Embedded Auto includes Tellme speech recognition (allowing voice control of the in-dash interface and text messaging), tools for integrating third-party systems, and a version of Silverlight for 2-D and 3-D graphics.

In the Nissan LEAF, an earlier version of the Windows Embedded platform will power what the companies are calling an “information hub.” This is part of the EV-IT system first described during the vehicle prototyping stage last year. It encompasses an onboard transmitting unit connected through mobile networks to a data center. In-vehicle IT services include a display of the radius that the car can drive using the current battery charge, as well as the location of nearby public charging stations.

Perry told us in July that the automaker is working with AT&T (s ATT) to provide a connection for digital services for the car, which also has a dedicated iPhone (s aapl) application. Using the app, 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 on the AT&T network.

According to Perry, using Windows Embedded for the LEAF was a joint decision by Nissan and Clarion, which is supplying the hardware box and touch screen for the information hub. Nissan gave Clarion a set of specifications, he said, and then Clarion, a subsidiary of Hitachi (s HIT), selected the best platform to deliver those requirements. The process began about two years ago, and a year later all of the car’s specs were locked in. It’s only been within the last six months, he said, that the company committed to using Windows.

Down the road, might Nissan and Microsoft find more common ground in the electric vehicle market — potentially through Microsoft’s Hohm energy management tool? It wouldn’t be the first time the Redmond giant made a leap from the belly of a car to managing its charge and integration with the smart grid. Ford and Microsoft (which have a longstanding alliance on the Ford Sync system) announced in March that the automaker will deploy Hohm in its upcoming electric vehicles to manage battery charging, starting with the Ford Focus next year.

To use Hohm’s basic service, a consumer logs into the Hohm website, entering as little information as their Windows Live ID and their zip code. Taking this location information, Hohm uses algorithms licensed from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Department of Energy to start predicting the consumer’s home energy consumption. For the most accurate predictions possible, the consumer can answer up to 180 questions, ranging in topic from home size to water heater brand. Hohm will incorporate smart meter data as such tools are installed and used.

But getting involved with electric vehicle smart charging could be one of the most interesting applications for Hohm in the future. Because plug-in cars will consume so much electricity and will require so much intelligence to manage that load, they will help usher in important intelligence services for the smart grid. And by linking up with automakers like Ford or Nissan, there’s potential for tools like Hohm to closely integrate the vehicle — like an oversized electronic gadget or home appliance — with home energy use.

When Ford and Microsoft announced their plans for Hohm, Nancy Gioia, Ford’s director of global electrification, called for other car companies to “jump on through the Hohm interface as well,” or use a similar system. Among other things, said Gioia, Ford liked the open architecture of Hohm, and the potential for third parties to develop phone apps on the platform.

Microsoft is also looking for a wide range of partnerships in this space, with utilities, municipalities — and also multiple automakers. The energy industry is a strategic business area for Microsoft, which has in the past told us it plans to eventually charge utilities for services. Microsoft spokesperson Marja Koopmans told us in April that while consumers will own their energy data, Microsoft will aggregate data from Hohm customers and use that to refine and update its algorithm. So more EV drivers means more data, and potentially more value for utilities as they seek to manage the load of electric vehicles on their networks.

These deals are coming at a time when Internet rivalries are beginning to spill over into the new landscape of connected and electric cars. General Motors has moved to work with Google Android (s goog) phones for a next-gen mobile app for the Chevy Volt, offering location-based services in addition to scheduling battery charge times (see video here). And both Ford and GM announced plans this summer to let drivers send Google Maps directions straight to vehicles equipped with Ford’s Sync and GM’s OnStar communication systems, and both automakers have previously announced a similar deal with AOL’s MapQuest (s aol).

Microsoft’s technology underlies not only Ford’s Sync, but also Fiat’s Blue&Me and Kia’s Uvo systems. But despite its status as a major supplier of embedded software for the auto industry, deals for in-car navigation systems have not emerged for Microsoft’s Bing Maps. Getting cozy with the high-profile LEAF, which is slated to have annual production capacity of up to 200,000 units in 2012, could be a nice coup for Microsoft and Hohm at this early stage in the electric car market.

Perry emphasized that the LEAF will have the first application of this type of telematics for the brand, but far from the last. “Telematics will be part of Nissan’s future models,” he said, then added that it’s too early to say whether they’ll run on a Microsoft platform.

Image courtesy of Nissan

For research on this topic, check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Why Google Android’s Electric Vehicle Deal With GM Matters

Why Microsoft’s Electric Vehicle Deal With Ford Matters

IT Opportunities in Electric Vehicle Management