PALO ALTO, Calif. — The money is in batteries, but the real energy is in software. That was the theme that emerged from the Silicon Valley Driving Charged and Connected Symposium here on Thursday. This was the fourth annual event on the electric vehicle movement held by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a group founded in 1978 by David Packard of Hewlett-Packard, where managers and senior officers from member companies work on local and state issues.
Other themes: Electric vehicles are no longer a science fiction story; Palo Alto is the epicenter of the movement; and about one third of electric vehicles worldwide are driving on California roads.
Former state senator Christine Kehoe, now executive director of the Plug-In Electric Vehicle Collaborative, opened the conference and described what she called a stunning development in the variety and number of available models as well as dramatic increase in number of charging stations with more coming on line every day.
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Solar charging station displayed at the Silicon Valley Driving Charged and Connected Symposium, April 23, 2014, in Palo Alto, Calif.
(Source: EE Times/Magnus Thordarson)
Comparisons with the smartphone industry were frequent in panel discussions, with one panelist suggesting the electric car makers were determined to avoid the fate of the major telephone carriers who were caught off guard by the Apple and Samsung entries into that market. Instead, according to speakers and panelists, established car makers demonstrate a remarkable awareness of the entire ecosystem and spend notable energy on research and development in electric vehicle automotive technology as well as information technology. Car companies see themselves as system integrators, remarked Mark Platshon of BMW iVentures, a venture capital company founded by BMW in New York. He also insisted the electric car industry is close to the tipping point. It's happening in the labs in this neighborhood, said Platshon.
Challenges to the car companies' business models are likely to come from the digital lifestyles of the millennial generation and the sharing economy, cars become more shared and less owned. Classic strategy questions were also raised in relation to acknowledgement and realization of being in the transportation business rather than the traditional car business. Consumers at the edge of the ecosystem will create pressures on the car companies at the center for innovation and customer experience that is for the most part foreign to traditional models for selling cars.
Connectivity is a common denominator, and many of the panels at the symposium focused solely on applications of information technology in electric vehicles. Cars were likened to personal butlers, robots on wheels that not only know drivers intimately while in the car but also know their needs and wants while they are outside the vehicle. As such, electric vehicles generate huge amounts of data that manufacturers do not know yet what to do with but which cloud services companies salivate over. Everyone is looking for a new type of data, said Lior Susan, vice president at Flextronics -- not big data but high quality data. The intelligence will be in the cloud all the time, claimed Maarten Sierhuis, director of the Nissan Research Center in Silicon Valley. The artificial intelligence technologies may differ, Sierhuis added, but the personal assistant and the digital self will be in the cloud.
The automobile is the ultimate mobile device, observed one panelist. There are a billion vehicles in use worldwide, and they represent a very captive audience. That makes an engagement proposition extremely important. It is an opportunity for the car companies to do something very different, centered not just on the car but on the wide concept of mobility.
True to its local focus, the group recognized Alameda County, the City of Palo Alto, Shelter Creek Condominiums in San Bruno, and NetApp of Sunnyvale as winners of the Bay Area Electric Vehicle Readiness Awards.
— Magnus Thordarson is an IT consultant and freelance writer based in San Jose, Calif. With a background in industry and academia, he is a veteran of Kaiser Permanente IT and writes about all aspects of information technology and management of information systems.