Electric Vehicles That Talk to the 'Grid'

There is a firestorm of interest in electric vehicles these days, at least from manufacturers and utilities, if less so from the public at large. Nissan has unveiled its upcoming LEAF all-electric vehicle. General Motors has touted the plug-in, electrically driven Chevrolet Volt. Ford Motor Co. says it will offer a battery-electric Transit Connect commercial van in 2010, a battery-electric Focus compact car in 2011, and a plug-in and a next-generation hybrid electric vehicle in 2012. But this begs the question, How will we recharge all these electric cars that will hit the market? And how can we do it efficiently?

One way is with an intelligent vehicle-to-grid communications and control system that “talks” directly with the nation's electric grid. Ford says it has developed just such a system, building on its other “new technologies” like SYNC, SmartGauge with EcoGuide and Ford Work Solutions. The beauty of vehicles that communicate with the electrical grid is that they allow the vehicle operator to program when, for how long and at what utility rate to recharge the vehicle. 

“Electric vehicles are an important element of our strategy for improving fuel economy and reducing carbon dioxide emissions,” said Bill Ford, Ford’s executive chairman and one of the few auto executives who have built a long-term green reputation. “This vehicle-to-grid communication technology is an important step in the journey toward the widespread commercialization of electric vehicles.”

When plugged in, the battery systems of the specially equipped plug-in hybrids can communicate directly with the electrical grid via smart meters provided by utility companies through wireless networking. The owner uses the vehicle’s touch-screen navigation interface and an in-dash computer to set when the vehicle should recharge, for how long and at what rate. For example, a vehicle owner could choose to accept a charge only during off-peak hours, between midnight and 6 a.m., when electricity rates are cheaper or when the grid is using only renewable energy like wind or solar power.

“We are designing what plug-in hybrids and battery-electric vehicles will be capable of in the future,” said Greg Frenette, manager of Ford's Battery Electric Vehicle Applications. “Direct communication between vehicles and the grid can only be accomplished through collaboration between automakers and utility companies, which Ford and its partners are demonstrating with this technology.”

All 21 of Ford’s fleet of plug-in hybrid Escapes will eventually be equipped with the vehicle-to-grid communications technology. The first of the specially equipped plug-in hybrids has been delivered to American Electric Power of Columbus, Ohio. Ford’s other utility partner vehicles will also be equipped with the communications technology. Over the past two years, Ford and its energy industry partners have logged more than 75,000 miles on the plug-in hybrid test fleet. The plug-in hybrid research focuses on four primary areas: battery technology, vehicle systems, customer usage and grid infrastructure.

“Broad commercialization of electric transportation is not something a car company can achieve on its own,” said Nancy Gioia, Ford director, Sustainable Mobility Technologies. “Developing and producing the vehicles is just one part of the electric transportation equation. We are well on our way to delivering the vehicles, but for widespread adoption, the infrastructure to support the technology needs to be in place, and we need to ensure that the national electric grid can support increased electric demand.”

You can bet demand won’t be there if electric vehicles prove difficult and/or costly to recharge. In addition to low-cost recharging at home through the use of a smart meter, researchers say recharging away from home -- whether at work, in a shopping mall parking lot or at a curbside station -- needs to be as simple as plugging in and swiping a credit card.