Plugging in your electric car will send data in all directions
Special to the Star
Apr 28, 2011
WASHINGTON - Nearly 40 companies in the United States are into the business of providing charging stations for electric cars.
It could be big and profitable, if enough drivers opt for battery power. And, as was evident here last week at the annual conference of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, the industry has already made itself indispensible and increasingly powerful.
Some of its plans raise questions about privacy.
In my only experience with a plug-in car, I simply ran an extension cord from a regular 120-volt, or “Level 1,” outlet to the charging unit.
But electricity utilities, including Toronto Hydro, prefer a higher-tech approach. Because of concerns over strain on the grid and, more important, transformers and other parts of the local distribution system, they’ll want to know who owns electric vehicles, and where and when they’ll plug them in, so they can control charging behaviour and timing.
On top of that, carmakers are pushing 240-volt, “Level 2” stations, to reduce charging times.
These are the basis for the new industry, which is being propelled by President Barack Ohama’s pledge to have a million plug-in cars on U.S. roads by 2015, as well his $230 million program in which two groups of companies are installing 14,000 stations to gather data on their use and impacts. As well, the first several thousand buyers of Nissan Leafs of Chevy Volts will get their home recharging stations free.
Charging stations will feed data among each car, its owner, the local utility, governments and the company providing the charging service.
Through “smart meters,” they’ll let utilities measure the electricity flow, and stop and resume charging. Eventually, they’ll be part of systems that permit monitoring and control of all home electricity consumption.
They could also allow governments to make up for lost gasoline tax revenue by taxing drivers for every kilometre they travel.
They’ll give drivers information — through smart phones — about the progress of a charging session, with alerts when their battery is full or the refuelling is interrupted.
On the road, they’ll be able to locate public stations, learn whether they’re in use, and even reserve a plug-in time.
Google just joined with the U.S. government to build an online map that charging-service operators will build on. They’ll link to mobile fast-charging services, the electric version of calling an auto club for emergency gasoline.
The companies, of course, will maintain and control these services and bill for them.
Some will make drivers pay up-front — $2,000 and higher — for home-based chargers and their installation. Others will provide the devices “free” but impose fees that amortize the cost of the station, cover the services and, perhaps, pay for the electricity.
“It’s a new technology,” notes Richard Stinson, president of power distribution operations at Pittsburgh-based Eaton Corp., which operates in Ontario and is one of the major charging station providers.
“The opportunity is for infrastructure players like us to take advantage of a growing business.”
Stinson calls his company, “a total sollution provider … we can provide every portion of the infrastructure.” That’s what his competitors — including giants such as Siemens, Leviton, General Electric and France’s DBT — now offer, too.
They’re developing apps that make electric cars more convenient, the grid more secure, and range anxiety less of a worry. But every step will leave a data trail that lets others — corporate or government — follow us, electronically, wherever we go.
As electric car advocate Chelsea Sexton told the conference, this is “a community-oriented technology.”
Given the potential for surveillance, it’s a disturbing idea. But in a culture that seems to prize connectivity above all else, will anyone care about being under such watchful eyes?