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Global CIO: Why GM's Volt Electric Car Needs An iPhone App

GM is promising a smartphone app that lets drivers remotely track data such as whether the Volt's battery is charged, hoping to ease the fear of running out of juice on the road.

In Apple's parking garage on a recent day, there were two, $100,000 Tesla Motors electric sports cars—with only one 220-volt outlet to plug them into. OnStar CIO Jeff Liedel was there visiting the company, and he noticed a sticky note on the windshield of one of the cars that said, roughly, "Doctor's appointment at 1, will plug you in when I leave."

Wouldn't it be nice if that driver could double-check that his or her fellow electric-car early adopter remembered to plug the car in? That's the type of situation where Liedel envisions a role for OnStar and smartphone applications when General Motors plunges into the electric car business.

General Motors' Volt, due to hit showrooms later this year, is being positioned as the first mass market electric car. New owners are sure to spend a lot of time fretting about whether the battery's charged. Liedel thinks a smartphone link will be their security blanket, letting them remotely monitor and even manage the charging. OnStar, GM's in-vehicle wireless network, is the network that'll connect car and phone, naturally.

OnStar Mobile Experience App
(click image for larger view)
OnStar Mobile
Experience App
What's interesting here is how a wireless data experience is being engineered into the Volt before it ever hits the road. Just like GM designers sweat the performance of everything from the transmission to the cupholders, they're worrying about the car's data output and how drivers will interact with that data. CIOs in most every industry should be figuring out how wireless data could change their own companies' products and customer experience, going through the same kind of thinking that Liedel and his GM colleagues have.

Electric Cars And 'Range Anxiety'

There are a lot of reasons people will hesitate to buy electric cars, and the smartphone apps are one tool GM is using to combat those. Electric car drivers feel what Liedel describes as "range anxiety"--fear of running out of juice, far from anywhere the car can be plugged in. Volt drivers won't be stranded, because the vehicle can switch to running on gas if the electric power runs out. Still, Liedel thinks people will want to avoid running on gas, so they'll use remote monitoring by smartphone to closely track the status of battery charging.

Another hurdle is that people won't choose "green" products if they're inconvenient, or too expensive. That means the Volt's mass market ambition depends on making the charging experience easy. The OnStar apps, built for the iPhone, BlackBerry Storm, and Motorola Droid, are focused on that ease of use, turning a smartphone into something of a remote dashboard.

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The simplest example is checking charging status remotely. A more impressive one is letting drivers turn the heat or air conditioning on remotely. Why does that matter? It takes a lot of electricity to warm a car's interior from frigid or scorching to comfortable, and a driver won't want to suck all that juice off the battery right as a trip starts. So the smartphone app promises to let a driver start warming or cooling the Volt's interior while the car's plugged in, drawing power off the grid and not the battery.

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