Sustainability and the connected car

I think for a while it hasn’t always been obvious how a highly connected car that offered wifi, bluetooth connections, an embedded LTE chip, or near field radio communications systems would translate into energy savings. What did connected cars have to do with sustainability?
For starters consider that traffic congestion in the U.S. resulted in just under 2 billion gallons of wasted gasoline in 2010, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. That’s a pretty modest number (the U.S. consumes 134 billion gallons a year) but it’s unequally distributed, since densely populated regions with high traffic experience ten times or more energy loss as a result of congestion than those areas that have less auto density.
So the big opportunity is perhaps the hardest to pull off, but it’s the possibility for autonomous cars to reduce traffic congestion. The year actually opened with Cisco and NXP Semiconductor making strategic investments in Cohda Wireless, an Australian company that specializes in inter-vehicle networking. What are needed are giant meshes of car to car networks so that cars can accelerate and brake in the smoothest way possible to keep the network moving. Cisco has obvious experience in building that type of network architecture.
In the more immediate term, though, what was most interesting out of CES last week was the announcement from Ford and GM  that each would open up their development platforms on their vehicles. Ford says 1,258 developers have already downloaded its software developer’s kit.
This opens up the possibility of on board vehicle apps that could enable a lot of sharing, essentially mobile, car connected extensions of the cleanweb movement. Consider a company like RelayRides, which already has a deal with GM to enable all of the OnStar cars to be shared in its network, to now have an on-board app where vehicle owners easily connect to a network, show their car location, and and make their car rentable in the network.
Or perhaps Lyft or Sidecar would be interested in allowing drivers to access an app on their new car that would show the network where they are at all times and their availability for providing a ride. Knowing where vehicles are in realtime is a key benefit over a simple smartphone app, as is the chance to provide that app direct to a driver on their dashboard.
And while it got less news than GM and Ford’s announcements about opening their APIs, Ford said it would take its OpenXC open-source hardware program out of beta. It’s been primarily an R&D program but it’s of interest because unlike just opening up an API to let developers build apps for an infotainment platform, OpenXC actually offers up vehicle data.
What this means is that hardware and software developers can plug into the internal communications network of a Ford to get sensor data on acceleration, speed and braking. There’s likely a big data opportunity here to build algorithms to optimize fuel efficiency or even plug-in hardware that integrates directly into the vehicle to better its performance.
We’ve seen the potential of vehicle sensor data with EVs. GM is working on app that integrates charging data from a Chevy Volt with local utility rates to pin down the cost of recharging an EV and to quantify the cost savings over gasoline powered engines. When the number of EVs on the road increases, we’ll also need to integrate data on charge levels for thousands of EVs so that electrical grids can schedule charging, and provide incentives for EV owners to charge at times that are optimal for a balanced grid. The more connected a car is, the easier this becomes.
It’s early days  with lots of problems related to proprietary technology as well as safety hurdles that will have to be managed. The “connected car” will mean many different things to many different companies, depending on whether the company is building an app on an open API or developing wireless communication networks for autonomous driving. But there are incremental opportunities here to build business models around giving people better driving experiences that also happen to save them, and others, energy.