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Better Place software tallies electric cars' charge

The electric vehicle service company will show off an "AutOS" at the Frankfurt auto show to help drivers stay charged up by finding car charging spots and battery-swapping stations.

Better Place founder Shai Agassi is ready to show off that he's applying his software industry experience to improve electric vehicles.

At the Frankfurt auto show on Tuesday, the electric car service company will show off in-car software designed to ensure that electric car drivers have enough charge to keep driving.

Code-named AutOS, Better Place's software alerts drivers to a car battery's charge status and points them to battery charging spots and swapping stationsin the company's network.

In conjunction with the launch, partner Renault is also expected to debut a concept car called Fluence ZE, a five-seat all-electric passenger car that will be able to operate at Better Place's battery-swapping stations. The two companies have committed to producing 100,000 of the sedans, which have a 100-mile-driving range, for Better Place customers in both Israel and Denmark by 2016.

Better Place's answer to range anxiety: software that keeps you informed about charging options. Better Place

One of the biggest challenges to introducing plug-in electric vehicles to consumers is "range anxiety," or the fear of not being able to replenish a car battery.

Better Place's solution to the shorter range that battery electric cars offer is to build a network of charge spots at people's homes, offices, and public places. In addition, the company has developed automated battery swapping stations, where a driver rolls up to a spot and a machine slips in a fresh battery.

The business model mimics the cell phone business where consumers purchase a plan that covers a certain number of miles for a monthly fee, which also includes free access to charge spots and swapping stations. Better Place owns the batteries, rather than the car owner.

The software, too, is a key piece of easing range anxiety because it will inform consumers of their fueling options, said Sidney Goodman, the vice president of auto alliances at Better Place.

"It's an energy-management system for ensuring that you never get stuck basically," he explained. "We relieve you from having to start guessing and dealing with that."

Goodman said that the software "learns" from a person's driving habits. For example, the system can tell a driver that there's a battery swapping spot nearby. If the driver ignores the alert, it will adjust and offer other options, such as other charge spot or swapping spots, and tell drivers how they can go with the current charge.

The more information that a person provides, such as a trip's destination and starting point, the more accurate the information and driver profile is, Goodman said. "Based on how your react, the software will adjust," he said.

Built using Windows Embedded and running Intel Atom processors, the software taps into the existing diagnostic messaging system in cars.

Utilities, too
Behind the scenes is another portion of the overall AutOS system designed to ensure that Better Place can operate the network without causing crippling spikes in electricity demand.

The arrival of hundreds of thousands or millions of plug-in electric vehicles onto the grid complicates life for utilities and grid operators. If vehicle charging en masse causes big spikes in demand, utilities will need to add additional capacity by building more power plants.

A screen shot of how Better Place's energy-management software can be used with a mobile device. Better Place

To prevent spikes, the charging rate of plug-in electric vehicle batteries can be adjusted, which is called smart charging. Topping off a battery overnight, for example, could be done over several hours and not impact the driver.

In Better Place's case, its back-end software was written to ensure that it will not exceed the amount of electricity it has contracted from utilities. In the first two countries it will operate--Israel and Denmark--it plans to make bulk power purchases from utilities and use its software to stay within its budgeted amount, Goodman said.

Energy management is expected to be an important component to a coming wave of plug-in electric vehicles built for everyday use. Nissan's battery-electric Leaf has software to monitor and manage battery charge. It has energy-saving features, such as allowing a consumer to turn on air conditioner with a mobile phone while a car is still plugged in to conserve battery power.

Better Place is in the process of building out the charging and battery-swapping infrastructure in Israel in Denmark which are projected to be operating in 2011 with early pilots this year and next, Goodman said.

Although the company has gotten a lot of attention for its novel business model, Better Place so far has only signed on Nissan-Renault as a partner willing to produce electric vehicles with switchable batteries. Some executives from other auto makers have said that the swapping system is not practical because battery sizes are not standardized.