Open Standards for the New Networked Vehicle Will Take Time

Industrywide rules for how plug-in electric cars are powered should evolve, but a strong open-standards movement doesn't yet exist

Over the next two years, virtually every major car company is promising to deliver their version of an electric vehicle. That means carmakers are increasing their efforts to push forward standards that will specify how vehicles are charged by the power grid, what the plug interface will look like, and what hardware should be used to make the connection. The IT and computing industries have spent decades hashing out standards, leading to a significant movement supporting the use of open standards that can drive innovation. As the car becomes a networked device and adds more IT and computing intelligence (aka Car 2.0), it will likewise start to rely on more IT-style industrywide standards. But so far, an open-standards movement is still a ways away for the car industry.

Standards are definitely leading the next generation of electric vehicle technology. Take, for instance, the new standard that the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) is working on to establish plug-in electric vehicle interfaces. The standard J1772 was published back in 2001 and specifies the charging hardware interface and coupler system; SAE is working on a higher-power version of the standard that will likely be agreed upon in the coming months. Startups like Coulomb Technologies are using the upcoming standard to build the next generation of high-powered vehicle-charging infrastructure; this week Coulomb touted its J1772-compliant chargers at an industry conference in Washington, D.C.

Coulomb's CEO Richard Lowenthal told us that the new J1772 standard and his company's gear are proof that the conflicting standards used a decade ago for high-powered charging are no longer relevant for the plug-in vehicle camp; J1772 is the de facto choice for the charging interface, Lowenthal says. In the U.S., states like California, through the California Air Resources Board, have baked the new J1772 standard into its plug-in vehicle credit program. The major carmakers are on board and are members of SAE.

Open Standards Reduce Costs, Drive Innovation

But while the SAE is sort of an open-standards movement for the car industry, Lowenthal says the collaboration is rare. "The automobile companies really have very few interchangeable parts." Though he sees more of an open-standards-based movement on the horizon for the car industry, he says it's at least six years away. That proprietary model could be because the electric vehicle market is relatively new. Or perhaps there's something about the closed system that aligns better with the car industry. As electric vehicles actually start hitting the market over the next couple of years, we'll see which reason dominates.

Hopefully the recent attention to strong industrywide standards in the electric vehicle industry is a sign that a more open collaboration on standards will have a presence in the new networked vehicle. If we've learned anything from the IT industry, it's that open standards can do two crucial things: cut costs and drive innovation. They can bring down costs because as more companies move in, manufacturing can take place at a very large scale. And they drive innovation as they allow developers to freely or cheaply gain access to the tools to build the product and create new and better ideas.

In that respect, the power grid does have an advantage in that the basic outlet is one of the most standardized technologies around. But the vehicles connected to various power and data networks will have to take that a lot further. Strong standards—open or not—will be what drives the power and data connection, ensuring cars can be charged for a set time over the power grid in any location and communicate over available data networks. Most of all it will be crucial for utilities to be able to control the rate of the charge and manage the power grid, communicating with all types of vehicles and using various third-party gear.

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