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Why Your Electric Car May Talk To Your Utility Behind Your Back: It'll Save You Money

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2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevy Volt, with charging station visible; photo by George Parrott

2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevy Volt, with charging station visible; photo by George Parrott

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Cars are remarkably dumb and uncommunicative objects. They only started having any situational awareness of what's around them--other vehicles in the blind spot, for instance--a few years ago. And they still don't talk to each other.

Electric cars--which usually pioneer a whole lot of technology--may be the first to get chatty.

A consortium of eight global automakers and 15 large electric utilities are working on a common set of standards to allow cars to talk to the grid and vice versa.

DON'T MISS: No, Electric Vehicles Won't Bring Down the U.S. Power Grid

The long-term goal is to let utilities manage the process of electric-car charging, so they have a better grasp on the added loads, and can modulate them in cases of high demand or emergencies.

If the grid is temporarily overloaded, they'll be able to ask cars to reduce or stop charging for a few minutes. For overnight charging, there'll be no effective impact on the recharge rate--the owner will likely be asleep--but managing demand is central to grid reliability, and electric cars can do their part this way.

2011 Chevrolet Volt plugged into Coulomb Technologies 240V wall charging unit

2011 Chevrolet Volt plugged into Coulomb Technologies 240V wall charging unit

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Moreover, as a press release from Ford--one of the partners--notes, "Owners of plug-in vehicles could receive financial incentives to participate."

In other words, it's worth money to your utility to be able to slow your car charging--or stop it briefly--and they'll share some of that to get you to participate.

The program, announced this week at the Plug-In 2014 conference held in San Jose, California, amounts to a common API (application program interface) for utilities, so they don't have to translate their queries over a smart grid into multiple formats depending on which maker's car they're communicating with.

It's an opt-in program, meaning that in reality, you'd have to give your car permission to chat up those nice friendly servers at the local power company late at night. it was coordinated through the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a utility industry research group.

ALSO SEE: Build An Open-Source Electric Car In One Hour, For $4,000: Video

In the broad scheme of things, electric cars require little or no added electric capacity. Their adoption rate is slow and predictable, and as one utility executive said, their impact will be nothing like the huge increases in demand seen in a very short time when cheap air conditioning was adopted by households across the country in the 1960s and 1970s.

Drivers of plug-in cars, from the Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric hatchback to the Nissan Leaf battery electric car, won't hear the chatter between their car and their power provider.

But anything that simplifies communications between dumb cars and equally uncommunicative electric grids will improve efficiency, boost reliability, and presumably make plug-in electric cars more practical.

The seven participating automakers are BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, and Toyota.

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