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Why data is key to unlocking the electric vehicle revolution

Posted 9 Oct 2019

Today the UK is the third largest vehicle producer in Europe, a position it is seeking to capitalise on by taking a lead in electric vehicle innovation. But that relies on the industry’s various stakeholders agreeing to cooperate to create a compelling user experience.

UK take-up of electric vehicles is growing sharply. In April, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) confirmed a 77% surge in the number of plug-in cars on our roads in 2018-9, to almost 200,000. Advances including greater model choice, more affordable economics and improving national infrastructure (charging point volumes and locations) are converging to create the ideal conditions for mainstream use of cleaner-energy vehicles.

According to SMMT, hybrids grew in popularity by 99.7% last year, highlighting the leap forward in attitude and suggesting that more consumers would be willing to invest in a hybrid or fully electric vehicle in the near future. Now it’s up to car manufacturers and their ecosystem partners (service providers, technology startups, highways agencies and more) to offer consumers something they can’t refuse.

The most effective way to accelerate this process is for the industry to collaborate proactively and zealously. This isn’t just about sharing ideas and lessons learnt: it is also about putting wider interests before those of an individual company, with a view to market stimulation. Toyota has announced plans to provide royalty-free access to its hybrid vehicle technology patents, recognising that cooperation is likely to be the quickest way to drive hybrid, then ultimately electric vehicle take-up.

This kind of industry-wide sharing of data and insights, making actionable information more readily available so that others can target their next developments, needs to happen.

A new report from Digital Catapult and its partners, Electric Vehicles Report: Innovation towards an excellent user experience, notes that even simple experiences such as satnav systems flagging up the real-time availability of charging points along a route, or mobile charging units being deployed in congested or more remote areas, will be instrumental in raising public confidence and simplifying electric vehicle adoption – and not just by consumers, but also corporate fleet managers.

As the market evolves, car-sharing apps, energy account cost-splitting, multi-modal journey planning facilities (which combine driving and charging an electric vehicle with public transport, bike hire, walking, and so on), could help not only to encourage consideration of plug-in vehicles, but to further accelerate the UK’s progress against environmental targets.

Today, however, data is held by a broad range of disparate organisations – often in a proprietary format and somewhere others can’t easily get at it. Custodians of that data range from vehicle manufacturers, charge-point suppliers and operators, energy networks, highways agencies, service stations and retailers, car park owners and car club operators.

‘Connected’ cars intensify the need for data sharing

We found that there is regulation coming forward which will enforce open standards and availability from certain parties, but in the future, online marketplaces may be needed to help make it easier to exchange data for rewards.

As cities, infrastructure providers and manufacturers embrace the possibilities of smarter, ‘connected’ vehicles and transport networks, the importance of end-to-end ecosystems and open data sharing resonate sharply.

Certainly, developments in how vehicles are powered are not happening in isolation. In parallel, moves towards connected and even self-driving cars are gaining pace. Bring all of these propositions together in the form of an electrically-powered intelligent vehicle, and the result could be something much greater than the sum of the parts. But the transformative impact of digital technologies depends directly on interoperability between apps and diverse real-time information sources to enable rich driver or passenger experiences.

Take the internet of things (IoT), the mechanics underpinning connected vehicles – sensing, capturing, processing, analysing and acting on real-time data feeds. Currently, IoT endpoints in the electric vehicle ecosystem include vehicles and charge points. Yet, as our report identifies, most data from these sources today is not open or readily available to consumers. There is also lack of standardisation of data formats and communication protocols, which limits the scope of their application.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a huge area of interest, in the race to create viable ‘driverless’ vehicles. But there is still a long way to go here, because the accuracy of AI’s calculations will depend on the volume, diversity and quality of data from which it ‘learns’ (e.g. about vehicles’ performance, drivers’ behaviour, environmental conditions, and more). If each vehicle manufacturer works only from its own data, it will take that much longer to arrive at a definitive data model that can reliably inform what an autonomous car does next.

Without cross-industry collaboration, even ‘coopetition’, the progress of connected vehicles, and by extension electric vehicles, will be a much more gradual evolution. Each company will find itself having to reinvent the wheel in its attempt to outdo rivals, with the result that the customer experience will be compromised. As well as slowing down progress, vying to be first and best will drive up costs as each company is forced to build its own ecosystem, skills pools, data banks, analytics capabilities and applications portfolios. It would be like nations each launching their own space missions, instead of pooling resources in the interests of getting to Mars sooner.

As other high-tech industries have found time and again, adopting open standards that are technology agnostic is the best route to fostering innovation and accelerating progress. We absolutely believe that this will prove to be the case in driving innovation, leadership and success in the UK electric vehicle market. Read more about this subject in Electric Vehicles Report: Innovation towards an excellent user experience, a new research paper by Digital Catapult and partners.