Telematics and EVs: The need for common standards

Telematics and EVs: The need for common standards

Old telecom hands—anyone over 28, really—will remember the era when mobile phone users could only text those on the same wireless network. Texting and mobile content really took off when carriers got together and let their customers text whomever they wanted, thanks to standardized messaging protocols. The same may well be true for the telematics infrastructure that supports electric vehicles.

As EVs start to hit the road, there’s an opportunity to ease drivers’ range anxiety with charging station reservation systems, while offering them additional premium content and services. But is a common standard for transmitting data, such as the availability of charging stations and reservations, essential? Could the lack of a common standard hamper the development of these services? Or will different vendors and service providers add their own innovations that will enlarge the market with attractive and useful services?

(For more on range anxiety, see ‘Telematics and EVs: Reducing range anxiety’; for more on charging stations, see ‘How to profit from telematics driver data’ and ‘Telematics and EVs: Things to do while charging ’.)

The need for compatibility

Robust and interesting services being considered or rolled out include customized content, entertainment, and even advertising to drivers while they charge, as well as the ability for local merchants to send offers and enticements to dawdling drivers. (For more on in-car advertising, see ‘Telematics and the socially networked car’, ‘Telematics and local search: The next big thing ‘ and ‘Can telematics make ads profitable in cars? ’.)

Keeping customers locked onto one system could be a competitive advantage for EV infrastructure operators. Mobile network operators tried the tactic with their walled gardens in the early days of mobile phones. The controller area network (CAN) standard data link layer protocol is the dominant communication system for embedded control systems in passenger cars, but there is not yet a standard protocol for over-the-air communications, says Emad Isaac, CTO of the electronics manufacturing services company Morey Corp.

This is causing segmentation in the market, which some providers may see as a good thing. But it could lead to increased costs for suppliers and fleet customers if telematics apps are incompatible with their back ends. Whichever entity is bigger or more dominant often forces the smaller partner to accommodate its proprietary protocols, often at great expense.

“Right now, the tier 1s and other suppliers or fleet owners already have invested in their servers,” Isaac says. “If they want to buy an aftermarket telematics box, they either have to search for something that matches or make a change on their end—or force the supplier to make the change.  So it’s all more expensive, which slows down the market.”

Steve Pazol, president of nPhase, a joint venture between Qualcomm and Verizon that provides a single interface to connect devices to infrastructure, thinks that moving charging station reservations to the Web, via Web services or XML, will solve the problem. “Web services are designed to be interoperable,” he says. “You’re not going to differentiate around that. Someone will do a Google mash up at some point, and then it will be on everyone’s phone.” In fact, Google recently added a feature to its maps that allows users to find charging stations near a location or within a city or postal code.

The need for interoperability

While many different standards bodies, including the IEEE, SAE and ISO, are throwing this around, getting everyone to agree has been dicey. There are two hurdles to standardization, Isaac says: One is the attitude of, “I think I’ve solved this problem, so just adopt my standard.” The other is, “I don’t want to be the one to have to spend the money to change.”

Isaac adds, “A lot of these guys don’t even want to offer up their protocols, they want to keep them secret,” so discussions haven’t even gotten to the point of competing standards.

Another standardization issue could be payment for charging at public stations. “Every EV [charging station] operator is trying to do something different, but we’re working to make sure we do have a unified standard and interoperability among EV charging manufacturers,” says Colin Read, vice president of corporate development for ECOtality, which is building a network of stations, infrastructure, and services. “If I’m a member of the blink network, but I drive someplace where there’s a more robust network, I’ll be able to use my RFID card to get access to that network and be billed appropriately.”

While there is no standards body for EV infrastructure operators, Read says there’s a grassroots effort to cooperate, in part through the PEV Collaborative, a group organized by the Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California at Davis. “We recognize that the industry is so nascent that if we don’t give first adopters a streamlined experience, the industry will not succeed,” says Read. “We need to make it seamless for consumers.”

The PEV Collaborative is considering using a common RFID card, most likely tied to a consumer credit card on file, with an account that can be replenished similarly to an iTunes account. “Because there are several types of RFID frequencies, we need to make sure we all put in compatible hardware and issue compatible RFID cards across multiple networks,” Read says.

He agrees with Morey’s Isaac that back-office exchanges also need to be standardized.
Energy providers also have a stake in seamless transmission of data about the public charging infrastructure, according to nPhase’s Pazol. If a neighborhood has, for example, a mix of home charging stations and a public charging station with 15 EVs, it could put a substantial load on the transformers, necessitating intelligent load balancing.

“A standard would be great, and it’s probably the right time to implement it, because the infrastructure is not yet out there,” Pazol says. “The utility could say, ‘You need to publish the data back and here’s how you need to do it.’” (For more on smart grid infrastructure, see ‘Telematics and smart grids: The business opportunity’.)

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

For more on EVs, join the sector’s thought leaders at PHEV/EV Infrastructure and Business Japan 2011 on September 7-8 in Tokyo and Plug-In Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Conference & Exhibition Europe 2011 on October 11-12 in Frankfurt.

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