Accelerating the Adoption of Electric Vehicles

10/24/2011 10:43 am ET | Updated Dec 24, 2011

In a recent IBM survey of automotive executives, 83 percent responded that their future product line would include electric vehicles. Further, there is a lot of talk and interest amongst consumers who are intrigued by the prospect of the reduced emissions, quiet ride, and decreased maintenance costs of electric vehicles. Following the market and seeing these statistics, it is apparent to me that 'whether' electric vehicles will become mainstream is no longer in question. Personally, I'm very excited about this prospect - so excited that I'm preparing and even had my garage wired for an electric vehicle charger.

Perhaps the more pressing question now is how do we prepare for the mass adoption of electric vehicles? I think installing public charging stations and ensuring that they provide an open and seamless experience for the user is a paramount first step.

Charge posts must be widely deployed and available for public use, much like gas stations, which are located in areas of high traffic. But unlike gas stations, you'll likely pay for the refueling of your electric vehicle on a monthly statement such as the one you receive from your utility. This method is both more cost effective and efficient, but what happens when you travel to another city, state, or even another country? The challenge is much like cell phone roaming - when you roam, you will be using someone else's network but pay your regular provider for that usage on your monthly bill. What is needed for electric vehicles is a system that securely identifies you and your 'home account' when you plug in. After charging is complete, it settles your fee with your home account and the operator who sold you the electricity. All of this happens securely behind the scenes, making recharging your vehicle as simple as can be. This is a premise that we're working on with projects across Europe - and I think it's going to help pave the way for a seamless user experience for electric vehicle owners.

The second big challenge the industry is working on to prepare for electric vehicles is ensuring that the energy grid can handle the increased demands these vehicles will generate. Recharging an electric vehicle is comparable to the average peak load (kW) of an entire house. That means that if you and three of your neighbors came home from work and charged your vehicle at the same time it would be the equivalent of four new houses needing electricity. This is not an insignificant amount of additional electrical load, but the grid can handle it if we are smart about it.

Vehicles will typically be plugged in for long periods of time - like when you are at work or at home sleeping - but your electric vehicle will not need that full time in order to recharge. This extra time, combined with some very capable software, allows the electricity requirements of an electric vehicle to be balanced with the needs and constraints of the grid, fluctuating the charge rate to ensure the grid system is not overwhelmed. This is not only more grid friendly but allows electric vehicles to be the ideal consuming device for renewable energy, as we can increase and decrease charge rates in response to renewable energy availability.

Of course there will be times when you will want to 'top off' your battery while you are grocery shopping or going to a movie, and for those times you will have the ability to set your vehicle to begin charging immediately and continuously. This could all be done via a mobile application on your phone that puts you in complete control of how and when your vehicle is charged. This capability is possible, seen by a new pilot project led by IBM and Swiss electricity provider EKZ. The project includes a new Web-based application and data-recording device that will allow consumers to charge their electric vehicles, monitor battery levels and manage energy costs with a single click using a mobile phone application.

These are concepts that are not far off from mainstream, with consortiums such as the recently announced EcoGrid EU project, we are working to ensure that when electric vehicles become widely available, consumers, the industry - and more importantly the smart grid - is prepared.