Oct 12, 2009

Electric Cars and Community Building

Illah Nourbakhsh from the Carnegie Mellon Robotics team presented ChargeCar, a project to redesign electric cars for urban commutes. He said he'd listened to NPR interviews on electric cars with designers and hopeful drivers lameting the slow speeds, as he was driving his own electric car, a RAV4EV, 70mph. ChargeCar is based on the idea that traffic-ridden urban commute is ideal for electric motors, but not for electric batteries. He said he never had to take his eCar to the mechanic; no scheduled maintenance because the system is so much simpler,  the motor does most of the work instead of than the brake pads. In eight years, he's only replaced the tires. 

 What's interesting about ChargeCar's design though, is it's commuity-building potential.  CMU's robotics team has made ChargeCars controller algorithm open-source in Ruby.Communities of hackers. They've released the totally naive controller algorithm (always hit capacitor first, then battery) as open source in Ruby. Hackers are encouraged to submit better algorithms. One of them will win an electric car. 

Aside from the tech community, ChargeCar has also the potential to "mobilize" urban commuters to take charge, not just of their e-car batteries, but also of their energy consumption, emissions and environmental footprints. CarCharge drivers can submit data from their daily drives to the site,  get updates about their commute efficiency, and carbon footprint. And how much they would save (in real cash money) if they'd been driving an electric car. 

Enter social comparison theory. ChargeCar's user data can be used to pit neighbors against each other, as California's Sacramento experiment has shown: the Sacramento Municipal Utility District sent 35,000 customers their monthly energy use, comparing it to that of 100 neighbors with similar-sized homes and the same heating fuel, as well as the top-20 most energy-efficient neighbors. A control group got standard utility bill statements without comparison data. It turns out that customers with information about their relative usage reduced energy consumption by 2% over six months. (http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2175566/posts).