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Electric cars: Big data helps designs shift gears

About the author

Jon is the presenter of Science in Action on the BBC World Service. He trained as a mechanical engineer (with automotive and aeronautic design) before becoming a journalist. He has worked at the BBC for over a decade and has reported from areas as diverse as war zones and technology shows.

(Copyright: Nissan)

(Copyright: Nissan)

Equipped with a bank of sensors, car makers say their electric vehicles are revealing much more information about its drivers than you can see on display.

You wouldn’t think that anybody would care about your drive to the supermarket to buy milk. But in the burgeoning world of building and selling electric cars, knowing about people’s driving habits is invaluable to manufacturers.

Electric car makers have begun poring over a wealth of data on how their vehicles are used. The information promises to provide insights about how people drive that were impossible to gain on such a large scale before – from charging habits to the ways people adapt to life with an electric car.

Unlike older vehicles, electric cars are equipped with computers, sensors, and wireless connections that allow drivers to voluntarily share information on their driving and charging habits. Usually a new owner will be prompted to opt-in to sharing location data, in a similar way to a new smartphone owner might be.

Trip information is collected by the vehicle’s computer, including start and end times of journeys, connect and disconnect times of chargers, and the battery level. Cars with GPS navigation systems can also collect detailed information about routes. And advanced systems can record details like how much the air conditioning is used, or how hard a driver accelerates.

The Volt, for example, is fitted with Chevrolet’s OnStar communication system that can broadcast driver data via its cellular connection. Many Volt drivers are choosing to share their habits online with other electric car drivers, in a kind of electric economy challenge. Manufacturers promote these data collection services as a bonus to consumers, helping them save fuel and money, or allowing them to see stats on their car via a mobile phone app, but the information is also a goldmine for car makers.

One of the best examples of just how much data is available came earlier this year, thanks to a fight between electric car maker Tesla, and a reviewer from the New York Times. On a test drive, the reviewer claimed he ran out of battery power, and had to have the car towed.

However, Tesla hit back by releasing a large amount of raw data from the vehicle that suggested it was driven at greater speeds, and with the heater on higher, than claimed. The company was even able to show that cruise control was not engaged, that charging stations were driven past, and that the car was unplugged before it reached full charge.

Now that electric cars are more abundant, the wealth of information and inferences that can be drawn are more meaningful than in the past. “We actually have data now,” says Mike Tinskey at Ford Motor Company. “We know our customer better than we’ve ever known them before because of these telematics.” He and others discussed their initial findings at the recent Plug In 2013 conference in California, a networking event for all the big players in the electric car industry.

Ford’s data shows that electric vehicles, including hybrids, are being driven about 203,000 miles every day in the United States, or more than 8500 miles every hour. “We know, for instance, the average trip for our customers is about 13 miles, and they do about four of those trips per day. Three of them are in all electric mode,” says Tinskey.

Data from the Nissan Leaf, meanwhile, has thrown up a few surprises. It has a range of about 75 miles (120 km) between charges, but the company says owners drive far less before topping up. “A lot of our cars are equipped with a data sharing system,” says Eric Gottfried of Nissan North America. “We find that most people drive about 30 to 35 miles a day.”

So far, and it’s worth stressing these are early days, manufacturers say they are learning that people are accepting or adapting to the limits of electric vehicles, and their charging habits hint they are less likely to get so-called “range anxiety” than expected. Or more specifically, they are keeping their battery topped up before range anxiety sets in.

Certainly, manufacturers have been trying to allay the fears of nervous drivers with blinking battery lights by investing in faster charging stations at more convenient locations.  These chargers are installed at shopping centers, work places, or even by the side of the roads. They can usually charge a car twice as rapidly as a standard wall socket at home - often much faster – and in the case of Tesla, they are free for owners of the premium-priced cars. The fast chargers are like “drinking through a very thick straw” for batteries, says Gottfried. “You can go from zero to full in less than a half an hour, and that’s a game changer.”

According to manufacturers, there are hints that faster charging is encouraging people to charge little and often, rather than waiting until they run low. “Sometimes you can stop for just 3 or 4 minutes and get the confidence that you have the range to get where you’re going,” says Gottfried, who cites anecdotal evidence from Leaf drivers.

“Owners seem to adapt to the car to an extent,” claims Gottfried. “They start to say ‘if I need to sit for 15 minutes to top off my battery at a quick charge station, that’s cool, I’ll just grab a sandwich and I’ll have my lunch in the car’. They’re adapting as they go to this technology, and we’re seeing new paradigms being set.”

Collecting driving habit data on this scale promises to reveal much more in the coming years - and not only about electric vehicles. As more and more computer-equipped, connected cars fill the roads, we will learn a great deal about how we actually drive, because such detailed information has never really been collected on this scale before. As well as informing the future of vehicle design, it’s possible that your next car might even reveal your hidden habits and tell you that you’re not the driver you thought you were. Perhaps that trip to the store to buy milk will say more about you than expected.

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