As I zip silently around the San Francisco Bay Area in a new Ford Focus Electric, the stylish battery-powered car emits not a molecule of carbon pollution. The four-door hatchback, however, is generating cumulus clouds of data every second. A dashboard video screen constantly displays information on the vehicle’s acceleration, braking, battery charge and location. Even when the Focus is parked it’s streaming data on the battery system and even tire pressure to my Microsoft-designed iPhone app.
That’s all useful for the driver but the vehicle charging data is of even more interest to Ford engineers back in Detroit who aggregate the information for insights into customers driving habits. “We’re learning a lot about how often people charge and whether they’re doing it at locations other than their homes,” says Mike Tinksey, Ford’s associate director of global electric vehicle infrastructure. “That will really shape the next generation of our products.”
Ford is not alone. IBM, infrastructure companies and utilities are mining electric vehicle data to plan where to put charging stations, manage the impact on the power grid and develop new services for the nascent EV industry. That data will influence how hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on the roll out of electric charging infrastructure as well as the development of future electric vehicles. “Big data is going to being to be a big issue for electric cars,” says Clay Luthy, IBM’s global distributed energy resource leader. “One of the keys to electric vehicle success is ensuring the grid can support them, especially as vehicle counts grow, and that adopters have absolutely seamless user experience.”
IBM is collaborating with California utility Pacific Gas Electric and Honda on a project to coordinate charging of a fleet of the automaker’s forthcoming Fit electric cars. The electric version of Honda’s popular subcompact will transmit data on the batteries’ state of charge to Big Blue’s servers in the cloud – called the Electric Vehicle Enablement Platform – which also collects grid performance information from PGE. IBM crunches the numbers and beams instructions back to the Fit on when to charge to avoid overtaxing the grid while reducing the owner’s electricity bill. The software can analyze historical electric vehicle data to predict when and where cars will charge or alert a utility about how many are plugged in a particular neighborhood and how long they’ll be charging. “We see IBM as being the enabler of all these business services,” says Luthy.
Ecotality, a San Francisco startup, is analyzing 25 million miles’ worth of data from 5,000 electric cars that plug into its network of charging stations the company is building across the country. “We’re digging deeply into the psyche of this first round of electric car adopters,” says Jonathan Read, Ecotality’s chief executive.
His diagnosis? Range anxiety is real and as a result, drivers are plugging in to public charging stations frequently to top off their batteries to alleviate their fear of getting stranded. That’s a boon for retailers: the data shows that drivers who plug in at big box stores that offer free charging spend twice as long shopping as the average customer.
And a finding that should make utility executives sweat, drivers are plugging in willy-nilly, sucking electrons from the grid at peak demand times in areas that don’t offer lower rates for charging at nights. “Electric vehicles can be turned from a potential threat to the utilities and the grid to a potential boon if we can influence how they charge,” says Read.
That’s why FedEx is working with utility Con Edison, General Electric and Columbia University to ensure that the electric delivery trucks it has begun to deploy in Manhattan don’t crash the city’s aging grid, given that electrifying a third of FedEx’s local fleet would spike demand by a megawatt. In a pilot project, Columbia researchers are gathering data on FedEx EVs to write artificial intelligence programs to manage where and when the trucks plug in. “The algorithms from Columbia will identify that a truck is going to drive only 16 miles tomorrow, so don’t give it 30 amps, give it 8 amps so we minimize the load on the entire facility,” says Keshav Sondhi, manager of FedEx’s asset management group for global vehicles.
The hope is that all that big data will head off big problems such as when Ecotality’s Read found himself on a Phoenix freeway on a 110-degree day with six miles of charge left on his Leaf with 12 miles to go. He made it home thanks to a hidden reserve of electrons. “But I had the nightmare of the CEO of an electric charging company clogging the highway at rush hour because I ran out of juice.”