Vehicle electrification has brought about an unlikely alliance between automakers and utility companies.
"Put the plug on the car, and the autos and the utilities are now sharing the same customer for the first time in 130 years," said Ed Kjaer, director of plug-in vehicle readiness at Southern California Edison.
As plug-in electric vehicles become more common, the need grows for cooperation between automakers and utilities. But getting two vastly different industries to work together smoothly is a lot more complicated than plugging a Nissan Leaf into a charger.
One big obstacle is a lack of standardization. Without it, automakers will be hard-pressed to guide customers through home-charging setups, avoid overburdening the electrical grid, and estimate the cost of operating EVs.
"Each utility optimizes their system for their own area," said Mike Tinskey, Ford's manager of vehicle electrification and infrastructure. "There's complexity in rate structure...some utilities have hundreds of rate plans. And [there are] differences in communication between homes and utilities, how they roll out their program."
Charlie Allcock, economic development director at Portland General Electric in Oregon, says his company has collaborated with EV makers on a number of projects and says there's one thing utilities and automakers share.
"Every OEM has a different set of interests and needs, but what we have in common is the consumer," Allcock said. "Building consumer awareness, the role of consumer education and also trying to build a little bit of a market together."
Developing that dialogue with consumers will be key as U.S. sales of EVs rise.
Kjaer said: "Customer education is going to be critical, not only on the benefits of at-home fueling but on the best time to do it."
Utilities can help, Kjaer said, by ensuring that customers are aware of "attractive rates and incentives to charging off-peak," when the grid is better able to handle the demand posed by charging EVs.
Utilities and automakers have had success in California with programs that give electric companies the addresses of potential buyers, providing utilities time to prepare the grid for more plug-in vehicles.
Tinskey said the next step is implementing widespread smart-charging systems that respond to the needs of the grid.
General Motors is testing such a system using its OnStar service to communicate with utilities to manage EV-charging times. Starting this quarter, hundreds of employees of regional utilities will drive leased Chevrolet Volts as their everyday vehicles and participate in the pilot, which allows utilities to monitor charging. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce peak demand by shifting EV charging to nonpeak hours.
But Tinskey estimated that similar programs on a larger scale are three years away and a bidirectional grid in which vehicles' batteries can contribute their stored energy will take longer to develop.
For now, he said, EV makers are sticking with the basics: "Most of our work is focused on getting charger installation down...getting the basics and doing it right."