As 2016's tougher fuel economy and emissions standards draw closer, automakers are racing to green up their fleets with electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.
But with electric vehicles come worries about limited driving range and a skimpy network of charging stations. This has automakers turning to various technologies to convince the public that owning an electric vehicle can be as convenient as owning a traditional gasoline-powered ride--and that charging will be substantially cheaper than gassing up.
Here are some of the technology steps related to charging electric vehicles that automakers envision.
Nissan North America Inc. plans to introduce its Leaf electric sedan in the United States late this year. In January, Nissan selected AeroVironment Inc., of Monrovia, Calif., to supply and install home charging stations for Leaf customers. The stations will cost $2,200, but buyers can apply for a tax credit to cover half of the amount.
AeroVironment produces military drone aircraft, among other products.
The Leaf can drive 100 miles on a full charge, which takes 8 hours. The vehicle plugs into a 220-volt outlet similar to the one used for an electric clothes dryer.
The idea behind smart charging is to let people schedule the ideal time to plug in their vehicles to reduce the strain on the electric power grid and take advantage of off-peak rates for electricity.
In late April, Nissan Motor Co. and General Electric Co. entered into a three-year agreement to research smart charging stations.
Energy management software
Ford is teaming up with its Sync partner, Microsoft Corp., to offer customers software to help monitor home energy use. Ford will offer customers Microsoft Hohm beginning with the introduction of the electric Focus small car next year.
The goal here is to create public charging stations that can juice up an EV in 30 minutes or less. Two charging companies--Coulomb Technologies Inc., of Campbell, Calif.; and Aker Wade Power Technologies, of Charlottesville, Va.--have announced plans for a network of these 480-volt stations.
In Japan, Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Subaru have teamed with Tokyo Electric Power Co. form the CHAdeMO Association, which is working on a global standard for fast-charging stations.
Norwegian EV maker Think Global has a deal with AeroVironment to develop a demonstration system that would fast-charge a Think City's fully drained battery back to 80 percent of capacity in just 15 minutes. Ordinarily, that would take 9.5 hours.
Think says it expects U.S. fleet customers would be the first users of such a system, but businesses such as shopping malls and parking garages may adopt it as well.
The Think City is scheduled to arrive in some U.S. cities this year.
Telematics, smart phones
The research firm Frost & Sullivan estimates that more than 80 percent of electric vehicles sold by 2015 will have some kind of telematics technology and that navigation systems will be standard on all electric vehicles.
The most important telematics services will be those that give drivers the location of the next charging station along their routes and those that allow them to book time at a charging station remotely, a Frost & Sullivan report says.
General Motors Co.'s OnStar unit has launched a smartphone application for the Chevrolet Volt that will allow people to monitor their vehicles remotely, initiate battery charging and find out how many miles of all-electric driving they have left.
French automaker Renault plans to take battery ownership out of the equation through its partnership with the startup Better Place.
Better Place plans a network of robotic battery-swapping stations that would operate similar to gasoline stations, allowing people taking longer trips to exchange a depleted battery for a fully charged one. Drive in, pay, the robot removes your depleted battery and installs a fresh one, drive out. But that assumes a standard battery size, shape and location for all electric vehicles.