GE, Nissan team on smart charging for electric cars

Research will focus on tools to help consumers manage car charging and ensure that the power grid doesn't get overloaded by influx of electric vehicles.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

General Electric and Nissan plan to research "smart charging" technologies for electric vehicles to help consumers take advantage of cheaper electricity rates and keep the power grid stable.

The two companies on Monday announced a memorandum of understanding to undertake research mainly at GE's Niskayuna, N.Y., smart-grid lab for three years. The first phase of the work will focus on integrating electric car charging with homes and buildings. The second phase will work on integrating electric vehicles in the power grid, according to the companies.

Matt Nielsen is lead researcher for smart-charging work at GE's research lab in upstate New York. GE

"Together with Nissan, we will take a comprehensive look at what technologies will be needed in the car, on the grid and at home or work to make smart charging a reality," said Mark Little, the president and director of GE Global Research, in a statement.

Nissan last week began taking orders for the Nissan Leaf, an all-electric sedan that can go about 100 miles. The automaker plans to start delivery of the car in the U.S. and Japan by the end of the year.

As these plug-in vehicles come to market, though, people in the auto and utility industries say there still are a few issues that need to be cleared up to make the transition smooth for car owners.

In a blog post, GE scientist Matt Nielsen, who is taking the lead on the smart-charging research, said that GE and Nissan will seek to sort out which challenges are real and which are perceived by using computer simulations and gathering data.

Among the challenges Nielsen sees are equipping homes with the appropriate wiring for car charging, administering low-cost metering plans from utilities, and managing car cables so people don't trip over them.

In addition to providing convenience for drivers, smart-charging software is considered a critical piece of infrastructure as more electric cars are plugged in. If a neighborhood has even just a few electric vehicles charging at the same time, the load could strain or take down a local circuit, according to utility executives.

"Initially the small numbers of electric vehicles will not strain the grid. However, I would argue that providing a good customer experience will be critical for these early adopters. In today's social-media connected environment, the communication of their perception may impact the overall adoption curve," Nielsen said.

To avoid taxing the grid, smart-charging equipment could monitor the rate that car batteries are charged or schedule charging for off-peak times. Consumers could also program their daily charging to take advantage of off-peak rates, if they are available. Or there could be tools to check the charge status and estimate the charge needed for a planned driving route.

Ford and Microsoft earlier this month said Ford electric vehicle drivers will use car-charging tools in Microsoft's Hohmhome energy-management Web application. The Pacific Northwest National Labs has developed a smart charger controller, a device that can get data on charge rates from the Internet while making sure a car is fully charged when needed.

Executives at utilities and electric vehicle companies are also exploring ways for plug-in vehicle batteries to provide services for the power grid. A network of plugged-in vehicles could help stabilize the grid's frequency and reduce the need for power plants used for that purpose. Electric vehicles could also send their charge back into the grid, although that technology is considered more challenging.