Navigant Research Blog

Cloud Connections Bolster In-Vehicle Systems

— January 26, 2015

With the average transaction prices of new vehicles in the United States hitting nearly $35,000 at the end of 2014, drivers can be grateful that the cars they purchase are also more durable and reliable than ever before. The average age of the more than 200 million vehicles on the road in the United States today is now nearly 11.5 years.  However, that longevity has a big potential downside: as computing and communications technology marches on to improve safety, efficiency, and reliability, many of those existing cars will be incapable of participating in these advances.  Luckily, cloud computing could come to the rescue.

According to Navigant Research’s report, Autonomous Vehicles, full-function self-driving vehicles aren’t expected to be available in significant volumes until late in the 2020s.  Until the fully self-driving car arrives, we’ll have a steady stream of incremental improvements in advanced driver assistance systems.  Thanks to increasing connectivity in vehicles, we’re also less likely to be stuck with the capability that was built-in when the vehicle rolled off the assembly line.

No Car Left Behind

General Motors (GM) and Audi are among the manufacturers that are already building 4G LTE radios into many of their new vehicles.  When this capability is combined with advanced new microprocessors from companies like NVIDIA and Qualcomm, vehicles will be able to leverage cloud computing infrastructure to get smarter as they age, rather than being left behind.

At the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, NVIDIA unveiled a new generation 256-core processor, called the Tegra X1, along with electronic control units powered by this advanced chip.  One of the problems that driver assistance and autonomous systems have to solve is being able to recognize and distinguish the objects detected by all of the sensors on new vehicles.  The human brain is remarkably adept at distinguishing the nuances between an animal and pedestrian or an ambulance and a delivery van.

Detection before Failure

This sort of image recognition is far more difficult for a computer, so the Tegra X1 is designed to collect image data from its 12 camera inputs and transmit it back to data centers where it can be aggregated with information from other vehicles.  By combining data from many vehicles, the object recognition can be dramatically improved, and updated image libraries can be fed back to vehicles for improved onboard sensing ‑ even without changing hardware.

GM is also harnessing the power of the cloud to provide drivers with predictive diagnostic information for their vehicles using OnStar.  Available for more than a decade, OnStar provides subscribers with vehicle health reports when faults are detected.  Now, by monitoring critical systems such as the battery, starter, and fuel pump and sending this information back to the cloud, OnStar is able to detect subtle changes in performance that have previously been shown to be precursors to component failures.  The OnStar Driver Assurance system can then notify the driver so that an impending problem can be corrected before the driver is left stranded on the side of the road.  This predictive diagnostic system will be available on several of GM’s 2016 model year vehicles.

As automakers roll out new infotainment interfaces, such as Apple CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto, drivers will also benefit from improved voice recognition that leverages massive data centers run by these technology companies.  More robust and reliable voice control will help reduce driver frustration and keep their attention on the road ‑ at least until the car can take over completely.

 

With Cheap Oil Flowing, U.S. Looks to Next Energy Revolution

— January 26, 2015

With oil prices continuing to languish and Saudi Arabia moving through a royal succession upon the death of King Abdullah, the idea that the “OPEC era is over” has gained credence among government officials and industry analysts. “Did the United States kill OPEC?” asks New York Times economics reporter Eduardo Porter. The answer, he argues, is essentially yes: “The Nixon administration and Congress laid the foundation of an industrial policy that over the span of four decades developed the technologies needed to unleash American shale oil and natural gas onto world markets,” thus loosening OPEC’s grip.

The reality is a bit more complicated than that: OPEC still produces nearly 40% of the world’s oil; the United States produces less than 18%. And oil at $50 a barrel could actually increase OPEC’s power as producers of unconventional reserves, which are more costly to produce, are driven from the market. Like the coal industry, OPEC is not going anywhere anytime soon.

The Big Opportunity

The shale revolution does, however, offer some other welcome knock-on effects, if policymakers are alert and astute enough to take advantage of them.  “Cheaper oil and gas will contribute an estimated $2,000 per American household this year, and $74 billion to state and federal governments coffers,” note Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, a San Francisco-based energy and climate think tank. The Breakthrough Institute has done extensive research on the role of public-private partnerships in the development of the seismic and drilling technology advances that underlie the shale revolution. Should the government choose to take advantage of it, this windfall could fund a multi-decade R&D program for renewable energy similar to the one that led to the shale boom.

“We can afford to spend a tiny fraction of the benefits of the bounty that cheap oil and gas have brought so that our children and grandchildren can similarly benefit from cheap and clean energy in the future,” declare Nordhaus and Shellenberger.

The Gas Tax Solution

That’s an inspiring concept. The execution is likely to be messy, though. Any such spending would probably need congressional support, or at least consent – and the U.S. Senate only last week finally reached agreement that “climate change is real and not a hoax.” That’s a long way from dedicating billions to develop alternative energy sources.

One suggestion put forth by clean energy activists is an increase in the U.S. gas tax. A few cents extra per gallon (on gas that’s about half the price it was a year ago) could help fund a massive crash program to develop inexpensive, clean energy technology (not to mention shore up the failing U.S. Highway Trust Fund).

But raising the gas tax is like the National Popular Vote – a terrific idea that’s unlikely to happen in our lifetimes. Even though polls consistently indicate that consumers are willing to spend slightly more for the energy they consume in order to limit climate change, actually slapping extra taxes on motorists at the pump is unlikely to be a winning move in Washington – which explains why President Obama left it out of his call for a “bipartisan infrastructure plan” in his State of the Union address.

 

Busy Start to 2015 for Smart Grid Companies

— January 22, 2015

Smart grid companies must have gotten their wishes granted during the holidays, because they are in a sharing mood to kick off the new year.  A burst of merger and acquisition and partnership activity shows that the ecosystem is growing and there’s enough room for everyone to get a piece of the bigger pie.

Trilliant and Innovari announced the completion of interoperability testing of the Innovari Interactive Energy Platform (IEP) and the Trilliant Smart Grid Communications Platform (SCP).  This combination enables utilities to improve operations and benefit customers with a shared communications infrastructure for smart grids.  The Innovari IEP provides automated demand response (DR) for commercial and industrial customers.  The Trilliant SCP complements the IEP with a two-way communications network to deliver grid situational awareness that enables real-time demand side management and the integration of distributed renewable energy resources.

Analytics and Engagement

Silver Spring Networks acquired longtime partner Detectent, which provides software to improve advanced metering infrastructure and utility grid operations, ensure revenue protection, and deliver enhanced customer engagement programs.  Detectent’s utility analytics solutions will be offered both as a standalone solution or powered by Silver Spring’s smart grid big data platform, the SilverLink Sensor Network.

Schneider Electric, meanwhile, announced two recent partnerships.  The first is a partnership with PlanetEcosystems to provide utility service providers with Efficiency Advisor, an integrated suite of software-as-a-service customer management offerings.  Combining Schneider’s Wiser Home Management system with PlanetEcosystems’ P-ECOSYS customer engagement platform, Efficiency Advisor will offer features like behavioral usage efficiency, home usage reporting, personalized recommendations, and an energy marketplace for customers to find contractors and financing options for energy efficiency programs.

Schneider’s second announcement involves a partnership between its European DR division, Energy Pool, and Hyosung, a South Korean industrial conglomerate, to offer DR in the newly opened South Korean marketplace.  Energy Pool will provide its DR expertise and manage operations, while Hyosung will tap into its network of industrial partners and provide IT support.

Just Couldn’t Wait

Often, companies will wait for the DistribuTECH conference to make big announcements about partnerships and new technologies, but these deals apparently couldn’t wait.  They’ll be discussed at this year’s DistribuTECH in San Diego, running February 3 to 5.  Last year, the theme at the conference seemed to be data analytics, as vendors showed how they can extract usable information from the plethora of data now available from meters and devices.  Based on these early announcements, it appears that the one-word summary for this year’s conference will be “interoperability.”

Now that the analytics are available, vendors are realizing that they likely can’t offer all possible analytical tools for utilities on their own, so collaboration will be necessary.  Whether that is through mergers and acquisitions or partnerships, I expect this trend to continue and am sure there will be more announcements at DistribuTECH from those who held back their surprises.

 

What It Will Take To Transform Buildings in Large Cities

— January 22, 2015

From New York to Los Angeles, a growing number of the largest U.S. cities are recognizing that tackling building efficiency translates into progress toward climate resilience.  The underlying assumption is that better information leads to action.  As these cities compile baselines on commercial building energy use and educate the public on the cost-effective opportunities for energy reductions, the next question that arises is whether building owners will take action.

New York State of Mind

New York City was the first to launch a comprehensive strategy to tackle energy waste in commercial buildings through four local laws under the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan.  The complementary laws not only mandate energy benchmarking but require performance upgrades to meet local energy codes for citywide renovations, major retrofits in buildings over 50,000 SF to meet lighting efficiency standards, and the installation of submeters by 2025.  Mayor Bill de Blasio has continued the commitment to improving the city’s climate readiness and, in September, announced a new goal for a citywide 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.   According to a recent article in The New York Times, the mayor’s office estimates that the energy efficiency advances in buildings deliver tremendous economic benefits.  According to the director of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, the city spends $800 million a year to run its facilities, and energy efficiency retrofits could generate $180 million in annual savings by 2025.

Best Practices

The City Energy Project (CEP), a national initiative directed by the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), aims to help 10 cities design energy efficiency plans and share best practices for promoting change in their largest commercial buildings.   Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Kansas City (Missouri), Los Angeles, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Salt Lake City have each joined the project, according to the CEP fact sheet. As outlined on the CEP website, in 3 to 5 years, the initiative will create transparency on building energy use and create financial vehicles for investment in energy efficiency.

New financing channels are a critical element in the mission to tackle commercial building energy efficiency.  While many of the most attainable energy efficiency improvements can be low-cost or no-cost improvements through scheduling and procedures, transformational changes require capital investment.  The challenge is how to engage building owners with financing mechanisms that enable those investments.

Opening the Purse

At the 2014 World Energy Engineering Conference, held in October in Washington, D.C., several sessions honed in on the challenge of financing energy efficiency.  The market recognizes the opportunity and benefits associated with energy efficiency, but the reality is that capital budgets are tight.  Former President Bill Clinton, the keynote speaker, declared, “Financing is holding back the energy revolution.”

In Navigant Research’s view, the challenge is two-fold.  On one hand, there is the opportunity to adjust perspectives on energy efficiency investment.  Advocacy efforts, such as the CEP, could help building owners broaden their views from a focus on payback to a longer-term view of how energy efficiency and intelligent building investments enhance the value of their facilities.  On the other hand, our research suggests that a change is underway in the performance contracting and shared savings models that have helped fuel investment in energy efficiency historically.   Watch for a new report on energy service companies and the transformation of intelligent buildings financing in 2015 as a part of our Building Innovations Service.

 

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