Electric Cars 2.0: How Apps, Grids and Batteries Will Spark a New Era

By Stephen Taylor.

What if electric vehicles could travel five times farther than they do today before needing a charge? Or if the cloud could connect cars to smart power grids to determine the cheapest charging schedule? Would that tempt more people to abandon fossil-fuel-burning automobiles?

We’ll soon find out. Read how electric-vehicle technology is evolving and will soon pave the way for greener transportation and more livable cities.

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With gas-fueled automobiles contributing to pollution and global warming in a world of limited oil reserves, electric vehicles have been seen as a possible solution. For cities, the benefits were clear: Electric vehicles would help make their streets cleaner, quieter and more attractive for citizens, while reducing harmful tail-pipe emissions.

Still, many drivers have been hesitant to make the switch because of some of the constraints of current technology. Researchers at IBM are aiming to change that.

With 2.9 million electric vehicles forecast to be on the roads worldwide by 2017, more electricity will need to be generated to charge them, putting a considerable added strain on power grids and potentially driving up energy costs.

Powering Smarter Charging With the Cloud

IBM knew there was a smarter way. In a partnership with Honda and the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and another with the Swiss utility EKZ, it started a project that allows communication in the cloud between electric cars and the power grid. The exchange of data will create an optimal schedule for off-peak charging for the vehicle and help the power supplier better manage demand. All of this is captured via a smartphone app that shows the auto’s battery level, range of travel distance, location and current energy costs in real-time.

These projects represent “a significant step towards building an intelligent infrastructure that integrates capabilities and technologies,” said Allan Schurr, vice president of Strategy and Development of IBM’s Global Energy and Utilities Industry. “We are creating a system that allows electric vehicles to communicate with the power grid — this is groundbreaking.”

That’s not the only big change that’s on its way. One of the most important issues for potential owners of electric vehicles is the range an auto can travel before needing a charge. That’s where existing technology has fallen short of hopes.

Getting More Miles With More Energy

Electric cars today typically can travel only about 100 miles using current battery technology, called lithium-ion (LIB), a dissuasive factor for many. IBM researchers at the Almaden and Zurich labs believe they can change that. They launched the Battery 500 project in 2009 to develop a new type of lithium-air battery technology that eventually may allow electric automobiles to go 500 miles on a single charge.

The project, which added Central Glass and Asahi Kasei as new partners in 2012, is still a work in progress, but if the researchers succeed it could electrify the industry.

Smart electric-car advances aren’t ending there. IBM is working with the European Union’s Green eMotion project on a platform that simplifies how customers pay for automobile charging, regardless of their location, making traveling on the continent by e-car worry-free.

In a similar project in Ireland, IBM has teamed up with ESB e-cars to install smart charging systems that allow drivers to charge and pay using an ID card.

For more inspiration on how transit can be improved in your city, read the post Four Transportation Ideas That Will Get You Moving.

Do you have your own Ideas & Insights you would like to submit? Sign up for the People for Smarter Cities site, tell us about it and help change the world for the better.

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