Use a Smartphone To Beat EV Range Anxiety

An App That Shows How Far You Can Go


  • OnStar Chevy Volt App Picture

    OnStar Chevy Volt App Picture

    OnStar's RemoteLink for the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt lets owners program charging from the app in one of three modes. | September 07, 2011

4 Photos

One of the greatest impediments to the use of the electric vehicle (EV) has been a generalized range anxiety — the fear that there's not enough power left in the battery to propel the car as far as the driver wants to go. Plus there's the issue of not knowing where to recharge the battery when the driver is away from home.

To address these concerns and more, automakers have introduced smartphone apps designed to work directly and exclusively with specific vehicles, such as the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and upcoming Ford Focus Electric. In addition, others in the EV arena (mainly makers of electric vehicle charging stations and their partners) have developed apps meant to be used with any EV.

All the apps are intended to be used outside the vehicle when it is parked. Apps developed by the automakers are engineered to communicate with their paired vehicles to control specific vehicle functions, such as scheduling or starting charging sessions. Others simply turn on the vehicle's air-conditioner or heater while the vehicle is plugged in, which lets owners cool or warm the cabin without draining the battery.

Altogether, these apps are "a foundation for ensuring a positive EV ownership experience," says Thilo Koslowski, vice president of the automotive and vehicle ICT practice at Gartner, Inc. Koslowski closely follows the integration of consumer electronics in cars, and he says the apps help the EV owner use the vehicle's range "in the most meaningful, least disruptive ways."

The apps are proliferating, says Dave Hurst, senior analyst with Pike Research. Currently, Nissan and GM/OnStar offer such apps. By 2012, Audi, BMW, Ford, Honda, Toyota and Volvo are expected to introduce their own EV apps.

Not everyone who buys an EV is a technology geek, and it's unlikely that any app would sway a shopper to buy one EV over another. Yet even tech novices who are considering the lease or purchase of an EV could benefit from knowing how these apps compare and contrast — and how they may evolve with future updates.

EV Apps Now Available
Chevrolet Volt: OnStar's RemoteLink for the plug-in hybrid Volt is available for the iPhone and Android smartphones, the iPod touch and the iPad.

Since its introduction in January 2010, this OnStar app's functionality set the stage for the apps that followed, telling owners at a glance whether the Volt is plugged into a charger, and if so, what voltage the charger is supplying (120 or 240 volts). It reports how much power remains in the car's battery pack, how much driving range this will provide and how much time is needed to fully charge the battery. It also reports the distance the car will go using all the fuel in its gasoline-powered engine.

Owners can program charging from the app in any of three modes. Immediate mode begins the charging as soon as the Volt is plugged in. Delayed — Departure Time calculates the best time to start charging based on both the state of charge and the time the driver sets, indicating when the car will be used again. Delayed — Rate & Departure Time typically is the lowest-cost setting. It encompasses Departure Time mode and also accounts for the local utility's rates in determining when to start the charging process. Charge Now is a fourth mode that can be used to temporarily override the Delayed settings and temporarily access the Immediate mode to begin a single impromptu charging session. An Alerts setting sends an e-mail or a text message to the user when charging is completed. If the vehicle is not plugged in, it indicates when a charging session was set to begin.

When the Volt is plugged in, its heating and air-conditioning also can be controlled from the app in order to warm or cool the interior in advance.

Nearly all those features are now found in other EV apps, too. Another feature is more distinctive, which is the ability to program a charge-interruption alert that will be sent as an e-mail or as a text message if the car is unplugged before a charging session is completed.

Like apps for other GM vehicles, RemoteLink also provides access to an OnStar advisor, enables remote door locking and unlocking, and shows real-time tire pressure and oil level.

Nissan Leaf: Nissan's Carwings app for the Leaf offers "charge now" and start-and-stop charging controls. It shows the current state of charge, the estimated time needed to fully charge the car's battery and whether the vehicle is plugged in. In addition, the vehicle's climate control system can be turned on or off from the app, either immediately or at a specified time.

Notifications options in the Carwings app can be set to send an e-mail or a text message to the user when charging begins and is complete, remind the user to plug in the vehicle, and notify the user when the climate control setting is changed and when the vehicle has been plugged in or unplugged. (This last "vehicle status" notification might or might not coincide with a charging session, so it is not exactly the same as the OnStar RemoteLink app's charge-interruption alert.)

A Contact feature will start a phone call either to Nissan's Leaf roadside assistance service or to a Leaf customer support agent.

EV Apps on the Horizon
Audi: The carmaker is developing an iPhone app that displays state of charge, miles driven and the location of the vehicle. It also controls and presets charging, shows how charging is proceeding and preconditions the cabin. The app is expected to debut publicly when Audi's first electric vehicles go on sale in 2012, says Alan Gerrard, infotainment applications team leader at the Volkswagen Group's Electronic Research Lab in Belmont, California (Silicon Valley).

BMW: The carmaker's first production EV, the ActiveE, arrives at dealerships in New York and other select markets in the U.S. in the fall of 2011. It will pair with an app called My BMW Remote, says Aaron Singer-Englar, EV product manager at BMW of North America.

Based on an app with the same name that's currently available in Europe for gasoline- and diesel-powered BMWs, the ActiveE's version of My BMW Remote will be tailored to an EV. Capabilities will include the standard fare: checking the driving range, starting and stopping charging, and warming or cooling the car's interior.

Owners can save two locations in the app to use a feature that's similar to MyFord Mobile's Trip Builder. A bar at the bottom of the screen displays a snapshot of the current charge status and range.

"The driver can store the GPS positions of home and work, allowing the system to compute how far the current vehicle location is from each of those," Singer-Englar says. "Let's say that home is 25 miles from our current location and work is 40 miles away. Current range is 30 miles. When the driver glances at the range indicator, he will see that the home location is within the achievable range, but the work location is not."

Other functions include remote locking and unlocking of the doors, a vehicle locator that shows the car's whereabouts on an on-screen map, Google local search (with results sent remotely to the car's navigation system) and a navigation mode that guides the way from a parking spot to the final destination, in case the car has been parked a distance away.

My BMW Remote for the ActiveE will be available in both iPhone and Android versions.

Ford: Ford introduced its MyFord Mobile app at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show. It will accompany the Ford Focus Electric when it reaches dealerships later this year or early in 2012, and will be available for Android, iPhone and BlackBerry smartphones. For other smartphones and ordinary cell phones that don't support native apps, Web-based versions of MyFord Mobile will support both a new browser technology named HTML5 and an older mobile phone browser technology named WAP.

MyFord Mobile also will have a wide range of features and capabilities, Ford promises. It will, for instance, detect the location of the vehicle at any of nine places pre-programmed by the user from within the app, including a default location, and then will use this location awareness to enable a variety of settings.

One such setting, called "value charge profiles," automatically starts the vehicle's charging at a time when the local utility's rates are lowest and will use the rate schedules of the utilities serving each of the nine locations, explains Joseph Rork, program manager for MyFord Mobile at Ford. When the app launches, Microsoft will supply the rate schedules of the local utilities, Rork says. He adds that as a general rule, the app will assume that rates are lowest in the evenings and overnight hours and highest during workday hours. A "charge now" setting in the app will begin recharging immediately.

As with OnStar's RemoteLink, MyFord Mobile will let the user set a Go Time when the car will be unplugged and driven away on a regular basis, such as the hour when the user leaves for work each day. The app will determine the best time to start charging the vehicle based on that time, along with the time needed for a full charge and the local utility rates in the value-charge profile, Rork says.

The Go Time schedule allows the user to heat or cool the vehicle cabin to a selected temperature while it's plugged in, Rork says. Up to two Go times can be set per day. The temperatures inside and outside the car also are displayed in the app, to help the user decide whether to precondition the vehicle.

MyFord Mobile also has a searchable directory of local charging stations. This is tied to its Trip Builder feature, which uses MapQuest to provide a navigation function within the app. Routes can include as many as five intermediate waypoints plus an endpoint. The app has a "plug-to-plug mentality," Rork says, so the final destination is always a charging location.

Because the app knows the vehicle's state of charge, it will indicate within the Trip Builder whether the car will make it to the destinations, based on the remaining power. These results will be further based on what the app knows about the driver's past power consumption rates when he was driving the vehicle, Rork says. The car sends trip log and charge log data to the app and, as a result, "Two drivers could see different results in the trip planner based on their driving habits," he explains.

Finally, there are social aspects to MyFord Mobile. The app awards the user "achievements," based on power-usage performance, and these can be shared with others via Facebook or Twitter.

Honda: The Fit EV, slated to go on sale in 2012, will include both a smartphone app and an interactive remote control fob. Each will show the vehicle's state of charge, initiate charging and precondition the cabin, according to Honda. The app will have extra functions, including the ability to set charging status notifications and alerts, a public charging-station locator and access to Honda's roadside assistance service.

Toyota: "Toyota is currently studying applications aimed at enhancing the driving experience of future electric and Prius plug-in hybrid vehicles," says Toyota spokeswoman Jana Hartline. The automaker is "evaluating various applications that would allow the customers to interface with their vehicles," Hartline says.

Volvo: The automaker has developed an app for its upcoming electric C30. But this app has limited functionality. It won't remotely control charging or cabin preconditioning, for example, because the car itself is not slated for mass-market sales, says Annelie Gustavsson, product manager for the C30 Electric at Volvo. Currently, only 250 of the cars are rolling out for lease across Sweden, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Germany, and these are intended for business customers, Gustavsson says. The app displays the vehicle's state of charge, the available range depicted as a radius on a Google Maps screen, whether the vehicle is plugged in or not, and the amperage at which the vehicle is charging. As sales expand to include consumers, the app's functions should, too, she adds.

Apps for Charging Stations
Two big operators of public EV charging station networks, Coulomb Technologies and Ecotality, are aiming to help build EV acceptance, and apps play into that strategy. A start-up company named Xatori recently introduced PlugShare, a social networking app for EV owners who want to share private charging stations.

Coulomb's ChargePoint app for the iPhone and Android smartphones lets users find, reserve and navigate to available charging stations in the company's ChargePoint network. The app provides detailed station information including configuration (voltage/current/connector) and price to charge. It also offers charging on/off controls and provides real-time status updates during a charging session. It also allows monitoring of a Coulomb home charger.

A version of the ChargePoint app for BlackBerry smartphones lacks the reservations aspect now, but it will be added with the next update, a Coulomb spokeswoman says.

By the end of summer 2011, Ecotality's Blink app is slated to be available for the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry smartphones, as well as for the iPad and Motorola Xoom tablets. It is expected to offer essentially the same functions as the Coulomb ChargePoint app and interacts only with Ecotality's Blink charging station network and home chargers.

PlugShare from Xatori contains a database of public charging stations as well as listings of individuals who have agreed to share their home charging stations or electrical outlets with EV owners. Drivers in need of a charge can contact these "plug sharers" directly by phone or text message through their listings. The sharers may choose to list their addresses or not, so they're in control of whether strangers show up on their doorsteps. Still, Xatori's idea is to eliminate range anxiety by enabling ad hoc charging. PlugShare is available for the iPhone and Android smartphones.

Looking for Seamless Connectivity
Looking ahead, industry insiders are already preparing for the day when all these apps begin to converge. The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory has been working to standardize the way charging station information is presented in apps, online and in cars, notes Mark Perry, director of product planning at Nissan Americas. The automaker has been working with the federal laboratory on this project since earlier this year, he says.

"The common vision is of seamless connectivity, between what you can do at home, what you can do on your phone or whatever device you have, and in the vehicle," Perry says. "The vision is easy to understand. The devil is in the details."

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