A weapon for electric vehicle range anxiety: GPS

Vehicle navigation systems — using GPS and offering turn-by-turn driving directions — are almost as common as stereos in new cars. But what if these GPS services could also provide another important function for the emerging electric car industry: battling so-called range anxiety. On Monday, electric car charging company Coulomb Technologies announced it has partnered with navigation company TomTom to offer charging locator, reservation and information services for plug-in car drivers.

The idea behind the partnership is that the electric car owner can tap into the car’s navigation service to use GPS to show the driver the nearest charging station, enabling the driver to know how far the drive is until the car can charge up. The wireless network is thus used as a sort-of safety net, turning the car into a device on one edge of the network, connected to the nearest charger at another edge of the network.

Range anxiety is something the electric car industry is particularly worried about. 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. It’s the same kind of limit on the gas tank of a traditional car, but filling up a gas tank takes minutes, and gas stations are ubiquitous. For the series hybrid Volt, from GM (s gm), the electric range is 40 miles before a secondary engine kicks in after that to make its range “hundreds of miles,” and for the all-electric Nissan LEAF, the range is at most 100 miles (see our range comparison chart here).

A startup like Coulomb is smart to look to partner with navigation services companies. Electric car charging hardware will eventually be a commodity business, filled with large hardware players like GE (s GE), which will start selling its WattStation at 60 Lowe’s (s low) retailer locations later this year. Coulomb needs to grow its partnerships and network as large as possible in the early days of the EV market, before electric car charging becomes totally dominated by these types of large companies.

Having the ability to reserve charging stations on the fly, could be a useful service when/if a critical mass of electric cars ever hits the roads. Coulomb also offers this type of service via a mobile app for the iPhone (s aapl) and Android phones (s goog), which taps into the phone’s GPS to provide locator and reservation services.

Electric vehicle makers like Nissan and GM are using the GPS in the cell phone to offer similar range anxiety reducing tools. I tested the LEAF’s in-vehicle digital system, called EV-IT, that uses communication networks (via AT&T) (s t) and a dashboard to keep the driver constantly updated about the range of the vehicle and the closest charge point. The LEAF also has a dedicated iPhone application, and LEAF owners are able to remotely monitor the state of charge of the battery, and can pre-heat or pre-cool the car.

The Volt also has a smartphone app that will enable drivers to control certain vehicle functions through their smartphones, 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 is relying on its connected OnStar system as the heart of the Volt’s digital services.

Images courtesy of Nissan, Coulomb Technologies and TomTom.