Less than a decade has passed since modern electric cars started coming to market, and already these vehicles are being asked to do much more than move people from point A to point B emissions-free.
Today, electric vehicles (EVs) are being equipped to drive autonomously, connect with a myriad of other devices and even read human emotions to provide an enhanced mobility experience. EVs are also changing their relationship with the electric grid.
Nissan was one of the first automakers to introduce a next-generation all-electric car in the U.S. with the launch of the Leaf in 2010. This week, at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show, the company teased that it will launch a new version of the all-electric Leaf “in the near future.” The EV will come equipped with Nissan’s ProPilot technology that will allow the car to drive autonomously in certain highway driving conditions. It will also be designed with an eye to providing grid services.
“We are also making significant advancements to make sure EVs also provide alternative energy sources for communities,” said Nissan Senior Vice President Takao Asami, during a keynote session at CES yesterday.
If electric vehicles reach a mass scale, it’s simply not feasible for the electric grid to handle that additional load with the way EVs are currently used, Asami said in an interview. “We have to start adjusting how we charge electric vehicles,” he said.
Smart charging -- where EVs are equipped to start and stop charging at times that are more beneficial for the grid -- isn’t a new concept, but more advanced systems where EVs charge in concert with intermittent renewable energy sources (like Nissan’s Maui smart grid project) are still in the development stage.
What’s also new is that automakers are starting to embrace two-way charging, or vehicle-to-grid (V2G) configurations, where power flows back and forth between the grid and the electric car.
Automakers have been hesitant to support two-way power flow, citing concerns over the possible degradation of the battery, which could create warranty issues and potentially make the battery less safe. But Asami says things have changed.
“Before we had the concern about the degradation of the battery -- that’s why we had to limit the amount of energy we could pull out of the vehicle,” he said. “But year by year, this durability is being improved.”
“We don’t have to pull out all of the energy,” he added. “Instead, as we have more and more electric vehicles, it really makes sense to pull a small portion of energy from the electric vehicle battery capacity to support peak power for a building needs, which we are already doing.”
In 2012, Nissan introduced “Leaf to Home” power system in Japan that converts high-voltage direct current from a Leaf's lithium-ion battery pack into the 100-volt alternating current used by Japanese homes. In 2014, Nissan started testing the use of Leaf batteries and vehicle-to-home systems to power a dealership’s lighting system during peak hours, in order to reduce demand on the grid. The company has also used six Nissan Leafs to power an office building during peak hours.
Today, roughly 4,000 customers in Japan are currently using EVs to manage their home energy usage with two-way power flow, said Asami. Hundreds of customers are testing vehicle-to-grid applications using Leafs in the U.K. and Denmark. And in the U.S., there are several pilot projects testing V2G technology currently underway, including a test at the L.A. Air Force Base to see how well EVs, including several Leafs, can provide ancillary grid services.
With the launch of the next-generation Leaf, Asami indicated that V2G applications could start to become mainstream. The technology that allows EVs to operate in sync with the grid is “more or less” available today, he said. How and where the technology is rolled out will really depend on policymakers and on the energy supply of the region.
The case for using an EV to send and receive power from the grid is most compelling in places where peak electricity costs are high. If utilities work to set up viable compensation schemes, EV owners could get paid for their energy-saving activities, which could help accelerate even greater adoption of EVs and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
One problem with that vision, however, is that Nissan leaders didn’t say when the new Leaf would be coming to market. What's more, they said very little else about what the new EV would offer -- which was somewhat of a disappointment following last year’s CES release of the Chevy Bolt.
“The fact that we are extremely conservative in our communication about what’s coming is because we are active in the market and we are selling cars, and we just want to make sure that the cars we put on the market can have full development,” said Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, at a press conference.
“But we want to compete on electric cars; we want to be present,” he added. “We don’t intend to keep one car in one segment of the market.”
It’s unclear how long potential U.S. customers will have to wait before they can know more.
EV enthusiasts were also teased at CES this week with Honda’s NeuV concept car. The small, square EV features wireless inductive charging and Level 4 vehicle autonomy, as well as Honda’s Automated Network Assistant (HANA) that can read a driver’s moods and support safe driving choices. HANA also controls infotainment options, enables digital payments through a partnership with Visa, and manages NeuV as part of an autonomous shared driving fleet.
The NeuV is also designed not only to charge when electricity prices are low, but also to sell electricity back to the grid during peak times -- with HANA’s artificial intelligence (AI) serving as the electricity market trader.
“AI regulates the inductive charging, so you can basically charge back to the grid, make a little money if you don’t need to drive that day or charge when the rates are lower and save some money,” said Jarad Hall, Honda’s advanced design group leader, in an interview. “You can also lease the car out for ridesharing and make a little money that way.”
Hall stressed that the NeuV is a concept car with no release date planned, but noted that Honda is developing all of the technologies on board.
“We wanted to take all the technologies we have and make it a unique story for a younger buyer about what an entry-level Honda could be,” he said.
Honda hasn’t really positioned itself as an EV leader. The company only offers one fully electric car in the U.S -- the Honda Fit EV. Hall noted that’s partly because the people at Honda are “perfectionists” and don’t want to enter the market until they’re sure they have a super compelling offering.
So while Honda's and Nissan’s announcements signal an important shift toward a world where zero-emissions vehicles play a more active role on the grid, interested consumers, and the utilities that stand to benefit from these technologies, will have to wait a little longer before automakers are ready to fully to serve the grid network.