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Cloud computing will keep these electric vehicle chargers humming

October 22, 2015, 3:37 PM UTC
Photo courtesy of Fastned

One of the biggest benefits of cloud computing and the near-ubiquitous connectivity that model requires is that far-flung machinery can be monitored and updated remotely. It’s not that these capabilities completely eliminate the need for on-site repair people, but they certainly can minimize it. Why send a technician to perform a software upgrade that can be done online?

That’s why an executive at Swiss power and automation giant ABB (ABB) says his company is using Microsoft Azure services to keep its new line of electric vehicle (EV) chargers up and running.

Azure is a public cloud, meaning that it’s a massive pile of server, storage, and networking devices that can be partitioned for the workloads of many users. Microsoft (MSFT), like Amazon (AMZN) Web Services, Google (GOOG), and IBM (IBM), runs data centers around the world, trying to put that computing power and storage capacity closer to customers wherever they are.

The beauty of the public cloud model for companies like ABB is they can use those rented resources to meet the demands of their own distributed customers without building more of their own data centers.

In this case, the end points of the application are not people, but things, like electric vehicle chargers. The so-called Internet of things is made up of millions of connected devices. And that’s where the real promise of cloud computing and connectivity can be realized. The more range public cloud services have, the more things they can reach, and that’s good news for users (and things).

Azure met several important criteria for ABB. First, it had global presence and supported the important security and authentication standards. By choosing one provider, ABB didn’t have to deal with lots of local telecom companies. The ABB chargers should be online on Azure by the end of next month.

Given that ABB supports 3,000 chargers in 40 countries, global presence is key. While you don’t want to send a person to repair every charger, you’re better off if your cloud provider has presence fairly close to that station to eliminate latency or delayed response times caused by distance.

“You have to upgrade the software every two or three months and can’t be flying to Kazakhstan to do that,” Otto Preiss, the ABB senior vice president in charge of its global power conversion business, told Fortune recently.

Another plus is that information goes both ways. Software updates and fixes flow down to the charging stations and information about their performance and customer usage comes back up.

“You get real-time information about the charging performance,” Preiss said. That means a problem with the charger can be spotted and addressed, ideally before it fails. If a service person does need to be dispatched, at least he will already have an idea of what’s wrong and can bring the appropriate parts.

ABB sees real demand for more of these charging stations, citing recent figures that the sales of plug-in electric vehicles passed the one-million unit mark in September.

The customer, in this case the station operator, might run 300 or 400 chargers. Data from connected chargers might show what locations are busiest, making it easier for the operator to see where it would help to add more charging stations. The operator might also see that one station does a ton of short charging cycles, meaning it’s smaller cars, not Teslas (TSLA), Preiss said.

Based on that information, the operator could then work through American Express or other payment systems to tailor premium services for certain customers. “They can offer Gold Card type ideas: You’re charging your car X number of times and the operator might offer a charging session or two for free,” he said.

Or there could be an app that alerts the car’s navigation system to notify her of nearby charging stations and whether they are open and up and running.

“There are services out there that we probably can’t even think of now,” Preiss said.

Azure certainly doesn’t have the potentially huge market for enabling remote service and diagnostics to itself. Amazon Web Services recently unveiled its big Internet of things tooling that will attack these same opportunities. Indeed, nearly every tech company is now slapping IoT features into its marketing collateral. As more and more tech outfits realize the potential of cloud connectivity, more and more may be making deals with public cloud providers like ABB’s relationship with Azure.

For more on electric cars, check out the video.

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