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Sep 12, 2012

Open Innovation in the Electric Vehicle Marketplace


Last week, GM announced that it would break its monthly sales record for the Chevy Volt, with August sales expected to be “well over” 2,500 vehicles. Sales of plug-in electric vehicles (PHEVs) are doing better in their second year than the Toyota Prius hybrid after it hit the market in 2000. But PHEVs still occupy a niche market when compared to overall vehicle sales, and plugging in represents a cultural shift in the way American consumers use their vehicles compared to the gasoline-powered cars we have driven for over a century.

How does the technology work? How far can I drive on a single charge? Will fuel savings make up for the additional up-front cost of the car? Where will I charge?

These are just a few of the questions consumers ask about electric vehicles, and they reflect the key barriers to adoption that commonly trouble advanced technologies such as technical challenges (batteries), complex systems (transportation infrastructure), and head-on competition with existing technologies (internal combustion engines).

Electric Vehicle

Alone, automakers can only do so much to alleviate customer uncertainty—and can do even less to overcome the cultural and systemic challenges that EVs face. However, through collaboration with governments, utilities, financiers, tech-companies, charging station providers, and even other automakers, the entire industry can better position themselves to “win” in a growing market.

One way that collaboration can help move EVs closer to a tipping point is through open innovation. This approach is described by Henry Chesbrough as the use of purposeful exchanges of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation, and expand the markets for external use of innovation.

Project Get Ready LogoWith participants from 30 cities across North America, RMI’s Project Get Ready acts as a platform for open innovation and information exchange. By enabling the flow of information across this network of cities, Project Get Ready helps identify best practices for overcoming challenges to vehicle electrification.

Enter Open Innovation

In my role with Project Get Ready I see open innovation playing out today as a variety of innovators work to enhance the value of EVs, with new business models emerging everyday. At the same time, I see enormous opportunity for increased collaboration. Some industry players have adopted open innovation principles and are already reaping the benefits. In 2010, utility NRG launched eVgo, the nation’s first privately funded electric vehicle charging program that provides customers with a home charging system and access to a network of public stations for one flat monthly fee.

To ensure technical feasibility, NRG partnered with Aerovironment and GE to tap into their expertise in charging equipment and infrastructure. To make sure that their network was accessible to consumers, NRG also partnered with key retailers in the launch city of Houston including grocery chain H-E-B, Best Buy, and Walgreens.

Electric Vehicles

Through this open innovation partnership, NRG acquired the capability to deliver a seamless and straightforward consumer EV charging experience. Especially commendable is the foresight to partner with businesses like HEB that previously had no role in the EV marketplace. By doing so, NRG created incremental value opportunity that each partner is able to capture a share of.

Another example of open innovation is San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority’s SFpark to , a collaboration of over 30 partners in government, academia, and the private sector. SFpark aims to improve parking and reduce traffic through real-time market based pricing, allowing drivers to check pricing and availability of nearly 20,000 spaces in San Francisco. Additionally, SFpark provides an open feed of their real-time parking data for use by developers of third party apps.

Applying the SFpark idea to EVs, we see the potential to overcome range anxiety and increase utilization of charging infrastructure by providing consumers with the location, availability, and cost of EV charging stations. Add a version of OpenTable’s reservation system into the charging stations and now we have ability to guarantee a charge if we decide to drive to the Cineplex in the suburbs.

Now imagine if applications like SFpark were integrated with your EV’s in-dash display and stereo. Ford is pursuing such a strategy with its Ford Sync AppLink Mobile Developer Network, which arms app developers with information necessary to design smartphone apps with seamless integration into the voice-activated Ford Sync system. With such connectivity, drivers will be able to use verbal commands to post a tweet with OpenBeak, or receive a coupon for nearby retailers with Roximity.

If we integrate these examples of open innovation from NRG, SFpark, and Ford, into our electric vehicles, our cars would become as much a source of information (and value) as a means of mobility. Based on stored driving habits or the errands we input to our navigation system, our cars could tell us that we will need to top off before making it all the way home. Our vehicle would show us a map of charging locations, filtered for those included in our eVgo service, if applicable. Additionally, we could see deals associated with retail charging stations, such as half price coffee at the Starbucks .5 mile away (which also has free Wi-Fi). We could then reserve our preferred spot and pay for it using our phones.

Electric Vehicle

These examples demonstrate the potential of open innovation applied to the EV consumer driving experience. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg, as their lessons can be applied across the entire EV value chain to promote free flows of information between stakeholders, and enhance our understanding of the challenges we face.

Eventually, such open innovation could allow consumers, automakers, utilities, and governments to access all the information necessary to make informed decisions about electric vehicles. We have already seen how big data drives intelligent transportation, now we need public and private entities to create open platforms so all stakeholders have access to the data necessary to bring our transportation system into the 21st century.

Highlighted Resources

Chart Thumb

Cities Work to Entice EV's

EV Charge

Five Real World Facts About Electric Cars


Electric Avenue

The City is the Crucible for the Electric Vehicle Market

EV Casebook

Download the EV Casebook


Learn More About Project Get Ready



Showing 1-4 of 4 comments

September 13, 2012

I live where I work. My infernal combustion engine vehicle is parked for days on end. There is NO where that I can install a EV charging station. When will photo voltaic panels be incorporated into the roof and panels of the EV. My EV could be charged just by sitting in the parking lot.

September 13, 2012

An engineer in Oregon did it himself, and there are other examples on the net. It may still be a while for this equipment to arrive at the local big box for plug-and-play, but it's likely coming.

September 13, 2012

Let's really "open" the discussion: Amory Lovins often remarks that only .5% of the energy in gas goes to move the driver; most goes to move the average 3,400 lb. car. For intra-urban transport, electric bikes could fill the bill for many, weighing 50-60 pounds -without lightweighting! At the world's largest bike expo, Eurobike, over half the space went to electrics this year: http://electricbikereport.com/electric-bikes-are-changing-the-world-swiss-edition/ Most cost $2-3000 and use about 1/4 cent of electricity a mile! You pedal as much or little as you want, having fun, avoiding traffic on bike paths, and going 15-30 mph, depending on motor size. There are cargo versions which can carry your tools, and trailers if you need more capacity.

Why assume people must drive when a bike will work for most people most of the time for most of the year?

September 18, 2012

We have a good grid tied PV solar array with over 3 MWh of credit and want to get an electric car. However, in West Virginia the road clearance is an issue on rural roads. Is it possible to get hydraulics to lift the car up when on rough roads? Also will there be ultra-light all electric cars soon which would improve the range? How do we weigh the environmental advantages of keeping our 1997 Civic hatchback going vs. the embedded costs of buying a new electric car, which we can power with solar PV energy?

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