Ford Motor Co. has figured out a way for its cars to "talk" to the electric grid.

The automaker said Tuesday it has engineered a communications system that would allow car owners to program when and for how long to charge their electric vehicles' batteries.

The car company, which is due to launch all electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles starting 2010, plans to test the system with utilities across the country.

Ford plans to equip 21 of its prototype plug-in hybrid Escapes with the system and send them out for field trials. The first one with the new communication technology has already been shipped to American Electric Power in Columbus, Ohio.

The carmaker plans to equip the remaining 20 Escapes in the fourth quarter of this year. The utilities would carry out the field testing for three years, said Greg Frenette, Ford's manager for the electric vehicle programs.

Ford hasn't decided whether to build the communication system on its own or license it to suppliers, Frenette said. The technology could make its way to its planned electric Focus and a plug-in hybrid, he added.

Ford plans to launch an electric Transit Connect van in 2010, followed by the electric Focus in 2011 and the plug-in hybrid in 2012.  The company hasn't discloses the model for the plug-in hybrid. 

The automaker is developing the technology to solve some thorny issues for both the car owners and utilities. 

Consumers want to know when they can get cheaper electrons to power their cars, and utilities want to know how to best manage the growing demand for electricity and avoid power outages if electric cars become widely adopted.

Many utilities have expected consumers to charge their cars mostly at night, when electricity is cheaper. But field trials have shown that consumers might not behave as expected. They could forget to charge at night. They also want easy access to charging stations during the day.

Consumers would program the charging via an onboard touch screen. Consumers could even decide whether to charge their cars only when renewable power is available over the grid, Ford said.

The car's computer would send the charging instructions to the grid via the advanced electric meters provide by the utilities.

Unlike the conventional meters that have been around for decades, this new breed of meter comes with sensors and wireless communications abilities that enable it to report each customer's energy consumption in real-time and to alert utilities of any equipment problems. Many utilities in the country are gradually rolling out these new meters.

Ford has been doing field testing of plug-in hybrid cars since 2007, the company said. It has inked many research and demonstration agreements with many utilities and the Electric Power Research Institute, whose members are power producers and distributors.

Back in October, Ford and its research partners received $10 million last year from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop and demonstrate plug-in hybrid electric cars.

Earlier this month, the DOE announced two grants for Ford's electric car program. A $30 million grant would be used for vehicle demonstration and grid integration. A $62.7 million grant would be used for manufacturing an electric-drive transaxle for regular hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles, Ford said.