Fueling the EV revolution with IT innovation

Vehicles outfitted with a battery, electric motor and a plug have gone from curiosities to commonplace in just a few years. Dozens of new electric vehicle models (EVs) are slated to hit markets this year and next.

As prices keep falling, and range and mileage keep rising, sales of plug-in EVs are expected to grow by nearly 40 percent per year over the remainder of the decade, predicts Navigant Research, roughly 20 times faster than overall auto sales.

Yet to make the leap beyond early adopters and appeal to mainstream drivers, tomorrow's EVs face a hurdle. They must be as easy to refuel as today's petrol-powered cars. Hitting that goal won't be easy. It will demand integrating today's atomized network of vehicles, utilities, fueling points, retailers, banks and others into an interconnected web that relies on advanced analytics to keep an emerging ecosystem of EVs humming smoothly.

The refueling challenge

Today, filling up your tank is arguably easier than ordering fast food. At one of the country's 120,000 gas stations, a driver pulls in, picks regular or premium, fills up, swipes a card and goes -- all in a matter of minutes.

Behind that apparently simple exercise is a century's worth of process evolution. Invisible to the driver are decades of chemistry research to standardize how gasoline is refined. Also unseen is the distribution infrastructure -- pipelines, trucks and tanks -- that cost billions and took decades to build. Today, there are more gas stations in the U.S. than the top 10 fast food chains combined, including Subway, McDonald's and Starbucks.

The intangible aspects of this transaction also have taken years to perfect. In seconds, credit card readers swap data between a web of financial companies via secure, high-speed data networks. Now consider just a few of the challenges EVs face matching this convenience. Because electricity can't yet be stored on site, as can gasoline, utilities must be able to dynamically track and respond to demand from EV recharging points in real time, or risk blackouts. After all, recharging as quickly as possible using today's technology, a single EV briefly can pull the same amount of juice as an average-sized supermarket.

Tomorrow's EV driver might also opt for different "flavors" of power. Instead of regular electricity produced from fossil fuels, some might pay a premium for 100 percent renewable power.

Next page: How IT delivers smarter charging.

Electric vehicle charging photo by ruigsantos on Shutterstock.