LG Launches Smart Appliances, Better Luck This Time

LG Electronics entered the smart appliance fray in a big way this week, unveiling its line of wireless data-connected Thinq appliances meant to save energy and communicate with owners and utilities. But has the Korean electronics giant jumped ahead of its white goods competitors, or jumped the gun in attacking the smart appliance market?

Those two options seem to about cover the range of responses, both positive and negative, to LG’s launch of its Thinq line at the CES 2011 show in Las Vegas. The new offering promises washer-dryers, ovens, refrigerators and robotic vacuum cleaners that can be monitored and controlled via smartphones or tablet PC’s — perhaps LG’s upcoming Android tablet? — as well as smart meters and other smart-grid connected devices.

This isn’t LG’s first foray into networked, intelligent devices. Does anyone remember LG’s $10,000 DIOS Internet refrigerator? Don’t feel bad if you don’t, it was discontinued.

To avoid the fate of the DIOS Internet fridge and other too-early attempts at bringing intelligent white goods to homeowners, LG will have to avoid the over-pricing and under-performance issues that have dogged smart appliances in the past.

The range of features LG is claiming for its Thinq line will be familiar to students of the smart appliance promises of competitors such as General Electric (s GE), Whirlpool (s whr), Panasonic, Electrolux, Bosch and others. Among them, LG’s refrigerators and dryers offer door-ajar warnings and cycle shifting to take advantage of low nighttime power prices and its ovens can be pre-set to cook at different temperatures depending on electric power rates and commute times. All of the appliances can be monitored and managed via mobile devices and PCs — a fun and useful feature, but also one which is being followed by a number of its energy-smart home competitors as well.

All new Thinq appliances will also track energy use, and will be linked via Wi-Fi to a network that can sync those energy use tallies to power pricing information, LG promises. But when it comes to linking energy use to energy costs, LG will either require customers to manually input their price information — something most customers aren’t likely to do — or rely on smart meters and a “switched on” smart grid to derive energy prices.

Relying on the smart grid of today to deliver price information will be a problem, however. Very few smart meter deployments are delivering energy prices at present, and barriers to real-time pricing via smart meters remain quite daunting for utilities.

There are other ways to connect utilities and customers — take Verizon’s (s VZ) smart home and energy management project announced last month, for example. But even the fastest connections to the home aren’t worth much if utilities aren’t giving homeowners different prices to take advantage of. Such time-of-use prices that change throughout the day — or spike upwards when utilities need to reduce peak loads to avoid blackouts — are still quite rare for residential customers. Canada’s Ontario province and Arizona utilities Salt River Project and Arizona Public service are among the only regions now providing them in North America.

LG’s vision of using Wi-Fi to connect its devices may also conflict with the fact that most smart meters deployed today are using ZigBee as the preferred way to network home devices — although many industry observers believe energy-smart homes of the future may rely on a mix of both networking technologies.

Just how LG plans to bring Thinq appliances to market — and how much more they will cost compared to less intelligent models — wasn’t made clear in its CES launch materials. LG has been reported to be testing its smart appliance capabilities in South Korea’s Jeju Island smart grid pilot project, along with fellow Korean appliance maker Samsung, a test-first, sell-later tack that’s being pursued by many other white goods manufacturers.

Given that many of the most promising features of smart appliances will rely on a more complete rollout of smart grid systems and new ways of pricing power to homeowners, being more vague is probably a good idea for now.

Pike Research predicts that the smart appliance global market will only reach $2.2 billion in sales by 2013 and $6.3 billion by 2015, compared to a 2009 global appliance market of some $230 billion. Whirlpool has said it plans to produce 1 million smart clothes dryers by the end of 2011, which would be a quarter of Whirlpool’s expected dryer production. By 2019, smart appliances could make up nearly one in ten appliances sold and command a worldwide market of $26.1 billion, Pike predicts.

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Image courtesy of LG.