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Savvy drivers want cars that are smart as well as green

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Exploiting the wealth of data that can be derived from battery systems will help sustain growth in electric vehicle sales that is defying the pandemic downturn.

Is the car market making the most of the information it has available to satisfy the new breed of car buyer? This new type of customer is super-savvy and super-confident. They’re the people buying pure electric cars during a pandemic, generating double-digit growth in a market that is otherwise hardly moving. They have the money and knowledge to make informed choices and there’s an opportunity to offer far more data to them and to the whole car market. This could massively increase customer satisfaction and financial security, so why are so few taking up this opportunity?

There’s a wealth of information available about electric car batteries from a vehicle’s battery management system which, explored as big data, has applications in the car market to give competitive advantage but could also be applied to the energy and renewables industry to good effect.

As a battery electrochemist, my work is to systematically test and model the ageing process and associated risks of commercial lithium-ion batteries. There are many factors that can affect this – driving style, temperature, road conditions, charging cycles, timing and so on. 

By gathering data obtained both in the laboratory and in real life, huge data pools suddenly become available. Finding patterns in any data-rich environment is easy, but to quote statistician Nate Silver – “that is what mediocre gamblers do – the key is in determining whether the patterns represent either noise or signal”.

It is in determining the important signals for consumers and industry that big data and artificial intelligence predictive analysis offer huge opportunity. Big data will produce unprecedented progress, undoubtedly. But how quickly it does, and whether we regress in the meantime, will depend on how we use it. That’s why it’s so important to combine purely data-driven intelligence with human intelligence for proper curation of the data.

OEMs need this information to support the development of financial products. For example, to be able to offer a warranty and service programme you have to know with a high degree of certainty how that product will perform. Personal contract purchase or personal contract hire payment plans are based on annual mileage, but is that the right metric for a pure electric car? Should it perhaps be based on driving style or charging patterns, if one of these has the biggest impact on battery health?

This is how big data can inform decisions, and the type of information which should cascade down to the consumer so they can be informed and adopt their driving behaviour or buying decisions accordingly. After all, modern industries all really ought to become tech industries.

How many would buy an internal combustion engine car again if they were provided with real-time data showing how much carbon dioxide is being released? At the same time, they would feel more excited (and confident) about e-cars if they could receive updates on their vehicle’s battery health as they drive. People buying e-cars are educated consumers who acknowledge the power of scientific knowledge and are aware of the relevance of good predictive tools.

Wider applications of battery data are also important. For example, by knowing about battery performance at the level of an individual cell distributors will be able to develop servicing and maintenance plans based on far more accurate information, reducing financial risk significantly.

Fleet managers could benefit in the same way. Both groups will also be able to sell on the batteries from used cars even if the battery is no longer able to power the car.

Energy storage is fundamental to the growth of the renewable energy market, and this market in turn makes the electric car market statistics more impressive. The more energy comes from renewable sources, the cleaner the electric car becomes because it is drawing its energy from clean sources.

Soon it will be the norm to take the still functioning cells from lithium-ion electric car batteries and use them as part of a static energy storage system. This second-life use dramatically extends the life of the battery, which improves the cars’ green stats.

The car market needs to use big data to reduce risk and achieve the incremental differences which make the difference between profit and loss.

Dr Alana Zülke is a battery electrochemist with Altelium.

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