The electric Smart car in New York: an iPhone app gives you a state-of-charge reading. (Smart USA photo)
One of the cool things about electric cars is that they neatly sync with the technology that we carry around in our pockets. I remember thinking it inconceivable that such a thing as a cell phone could exist, and also that we'd never have practical plug-in vehicles. Now we have both, and they complement each other.
Take the electric drive Smart car. Some 250 of them are being rolled out in the U.S., beginning in October, and in addition to a 16.5 kilowatthour battery pack from partner Tesla, they carry a very interesting iPhone app. A cradle sprouts from the dashboard, and when the phone is plugged in it can provide GPS directions or play music from its onboard collection. Take it with you, and it can provide information on your battery car's state of charge, expected completion time, and location of charging stations. Forget where your car is parked, and it can find it for you. Here's what it looks like on video:
Versions for the Blackberry and other phones are coming. Virtually all electric cars hitting the market by the end of the year and early next have a version of this technology. You're nothing if you don't have an iPhone or iPad app for your brand, even if it's frivolous. Audi just announced that iPad users with SkyGrid access can take part in a high-def "24 Hours of Le Mans Experience" in their cars.
But EVs really do need apps, because they'll be highly interactive with the grid. What I mean is that the cars can't possibly work if they're dumb appliances that all plug in when their owners return from work at 6 p.m. That would blow every transformer on the line. Charging has to be spaced out, and done mostly at night.
Since you're not going to want to get up at midnight to plug the car in, electronics have to handle the work. Your car will "talk" to the utility, which will start a charging session at the optimal after-hours time. And you'll be able to use your cell phone to initiate sessions, too.
Mike Rowand, director of advanced customer technology at Duke Power, says the utilities can handle millions of EVs. "We managed two computers in every house," he said, "and we handled air conditioning-two things that had a bigger impact than EVs will have. Plug-in vehicles will be manageable, but I don't want to minimize it as an issue." But Duke is being a bit cautious as it waits to see how big the market gets.
Doug Kim, who directs the EV readiness program at Southern California Edison (a big green car booster), said that his 50,000-square-mile, 400-community service area could have 450,000 EVs plugging in by 2020. That's a big load. To make it even more of a challenge, Kim said he expects to see EV "clustering" around some cities and communities.
He didn't say it, but expect them to be in affluent areas, like the 90210 zip code. Those clustered consumers will have an incentive to make sure they're all charging late at night: lower rates. "We want to ensure seamless service," he said, "so that mean's an EV-only rate that is a third lower than peak-rate electricity."
All this means it really will be good to have our iPhone and Blackberry taking control of EV charging. We'll be chatting in a restaurant, get a ping and discover that the car we left outside is now fully charged. That's an app with a purpose.
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