GM Upgrades OnStar to Power First Real-World, Smart Grid EV Pilot

GM Upgrades OnStar to Power First Real-World, Smart Grid EV Pilot

Image courtesy of GM.

Hard to believe that OnStar -- GM's in-car mobile data service -- celebrates its Sweet 16 this year.

Back in 1995, when the service was launched for GM's luxury line, pundits griped it was just a superfluous add-on. This was back in the cell phone Stone Age when they were still a luxury, analog and kinda huge. Few predicted then that telematics would mushroom in importance over the next decade. These days six million subscribers pay for OnStar's emergency assistance, remote diagnostics, mapping, entertainment and more.

To that long list, add one more trick OnStar is helping GM to pull off: offering a short-cut to connect electric vehicles (EVs) to the smart grid. GM yesterday announced the launch of a pilot program that can let utilities and customers skip the need to install physical smart grid points to manage recharging of their EVs. The new OnStar service will act as a remote brain, wirelessly tracking and governing the EV's charging behavior, coordinating the timing and billing, and potentially dramatically lowering the costs to extend smart-grid management features to EVs.

By skipping the need to install physical smart apparatus, the OnStar system can save utilities some $18 million per 1,000 customers, said Vijay Iyer, GM's director of communications for OnStar, citing GE estimates. To mesh OnStar's data services with utilities' internal information management systems, GM worked with GE, whose IQ Demand Optimization Services unit is used by utilities to monitor demand response systems.

This is important step for utilities which are busily, and expensively, building intelligent power and data devices in customers' garages, as well as at charging terminals, to referee how and when EVs will re-charge. Utilities don't want fleets of EVs drawing power on 95 degree summer afternoons when power is in short supply. Customers, likewise, will prefer the option of charging at night when power is much cheaper.

The Detroit automaker is calling the trial the first "real-world pilot of smart grid solutions." This quarter, staff of regional utilities will become the guinea pigs for this program, driving Chevrolet Volts for everyday use. Ford announced plans to scale up a broad smart-grid integration at the last Detroit auto show. And Toyota has laid out ambitions to collaborate with Microsoft.

GM is betting that this approach will let it leapfrog the smart-grid technology demos being piloted across the U.S. Given that OnStar can pick up recharging activity anywhere -- whether at home or on a distant road trip -- the approach promises to offer deeper insight into how, where and when EVs are charged. Since it doesn't matter whether the EV is connected to a smart-grid charge point, OnStar should let utilities more accurately model how to manage peak versus non-peak charging too.

GM's EV approach may get real traction where others have struggled. It appears to offer utilities a faster, cheaper way to hook up a major new source of electricity consumption to the grid. If utilities don't see the benefit, it will be DOA. We saw evidence of the importance of this recently when software heavyweights Google and Microsoft suspended efforts to develop software applications for home energy management, in part because of the difficulty of getting access to the all-important data stream from utilities.

There are some intriguing long-term implications to GM's announcement. With smart-grid enabling technology embedded in the car, GM opens the door to a faster rollout of sophisticated vehicle recharging schemes than would be possible if utilities must first build hardware networks of recharging stations.

There's big global potential too: GM as a company remains the No. 2 auto producer in the world, even after its recent near death experience. Two of the top 10 selling vehicles in China, the world's largest auto market, are GMs. And China has the largest goals for EV deployment of any country.

The inevitable next question is whether GM might make this service available to other automakers, so that they could roll out smart grid EV charging on a faster track too? Until 2006, GM licensed OnStar through a variety of other carmakers, but has since stopped. This Sunday, however, GM will release a portable form of OnStar that can be installed in any car, OnStar for My Vehicle (OnStar FMV).

Who knows? In time, maybe even your Toyota could hook up to the smart grid via GM's OnStar.