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Posted on Tue, Sep 15, 2009 : 5:55 a.m.

Ann Arbor on front lines of software development for emerging electric car industry

By Nathan Bomey

The electrification of the vehicle creates a variety of problems associated with the electrical grid. But it's also an emerging opportunity for software developers.

That’s why Google, for example, has initiated a barely publicized venture into software development for electric car charging management. The effort launches the Internet giant directly into the shifting terrain of the auto industry.

Bill Weihl, Google’s “energy czar,” who will speak today at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, said the alternative powertrain movement could present opportunity for Google. The integration of electric vehicles into largely antiquated grid infrastructure presents a need for new grid management software.

“Those become essentially very large appliances that get plugged in periodically,” Weihl told in an interview. “Controlling the rate of charge and when they charge” are key concerns.

The issue - which forces the utility industry and the auto industry to collaborate - has prompted a variety of ripple effects in the Ann Arbor region:

  • Determining how to efficiently connect electric vehicles to the electricity grid is the primary focus of a two-year, $5 million technology collaboration among U-M, DTE Energy, General Motors and others. The Michigan Public Service Commission funded the study in 2008.
  • The Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research is organizing “The Business of Plugging In,” a conference in Detroit from Oct. 19-21, to discuss issues associated with electric vehicels. Participants include DTE CEO Anthony Earley, A123Systems CEO David Vieau and Ford Motor Co. executive chairman Bill Ford Jr. One panel will discuss grid-related issues.
  • Alternative propulsion engineers at Ann Arbor companies such as Sakti3 are designing lithium-ion battery technology that will need to interact efficiently with the grid.

Some experts believe the advent of various smart-grid technologies, which would allow utilities to manage power more effectively, is critical to the success of electric vehicles. Software is a piece of that.

Preparing the grid for the impact of electric vehicles creates demand for new software, said Hawk Asgeirsson, DTE’s manager of power systems technologies.

“There are companies out there looking at that, and so are the automotives,” he said, “to provide a service to consumers, utilities, operating companies to help charge or regulate the charging of vehicles."

Weihl said Google believes its software expertise could apply to the car charging software management industry.

“I think we can certainly contribute to the development of that technology," he said.

David Cole, chairman of CAR, said the electricity industry can handle electric vehicles for now.

“There’s very sufficient capacity as long as you can charge at off-peak times,” he said, referring to the evening, when electricity demand drops. “Most communities don’t have electronic (monitoring) capability yet, but they will. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.”

All the major automakers are pursuing battery-powered vehicles of some kind. GM’s Chevrolet Volt, perhaps the most high-profile of the electric vehicle mix, is set for release in November 2010. It will be able to travel 40 miles on a single electrical charge, after which a small gas engine will help recharge the battery to ensure continuous drivability.

It’ll still be several years before alternative propulsion vehicles are common on the road. But the utility industry, automakers and policymakers are already preparing for grid-related issues.

Judy Palnau, spokeswoman for the MPSC, said the commission is considering a variety of issues associated with plug-in vehicles and the grid. That includes “how is that electricity going to be priced,” she said.

MPSC’s smart grid team last year launched a pilot program, separate from the $5 million technology collaboration, to study the impact of electric vehicles on the grid.

“It definitely will affect the grid in a negative way if you’re not prepared ahead of time,” Palnau said.

Contact’s Nathan Bomey at or (734) 623-2587 or follow him on Twitter.