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Cars connected to the cloud: The all-electric Nissan Leaf

In a move that shows off the latest push among automakers to bring cars to the digital age, Airbiquity and Hitachi Automotive Systems showcased a connected services technology system for electric vehicles at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas today.

The system, which is debuting in Nissan’s all-electric Leaf, allows drivers to search for charging stations and plot routes that will use less of the electric car’s battery (avoiding slopes, for instance), and connects drivers through a global cloud that Airbiquity operates for Nissan. The platform comes standard with Nissan’s Leaf (console and car pictured), which is currently is all booked up with the car maker’s initial run of 20,000 reservations.

Electric vehicles like the Leaf, the partially-electric Chevrolet Volt and Tesla’s upcoming all-electric Model S sedan all offer some kind of souped-up display system. Given that electric cars are a relatively new technology and come with an above-average price tag, these extra features add to the cool and luxury factor while providing tools to help consumers understand their car’s range and tailor their driving habits to it.

The shift isn’t limited to electric cars, though. The information and communication technology (ICT) system for the Leaf is one of several efforts among automakers — not to mention many cleantech startups — towards data-driven efficiency, as well as cloud-enabled entertainment. Ford’s Sync computer system is now in 3 million vehicles, enabling voice command-activated entertainment options as well as safety features like automatic 911 operator connection in the event of a crash. And GM announced it will showcase a Buick at CES that uses GM’s Onstar Service with Verizon’s 4G LTE network to enables video chatting (erm, anyone see a crash hazard here?), home monitoring and impact detection. Nissan, Ford, and GM have all developed smartphone apps to go with their ICT systems.

The moves also represent more data than ever being exchanged between manufacturers and consumers. The Leaf’s system, for example, can send information about battery efficiency back to Nissan, where researchers can use it to improve the next generation of electric vehicles, or alert drivers when their tire pressure is low or repairs are needed.

“There’s fewer surprises about breakdowns, parts that need to be replaced,” said Leo McCloskey, vice president of marketing for Airbiquity.

Given the backlash over privacy concerns with smart meters broadcasting real-time energy usage data wirelessly, will there be similar hesitation over integrating such functions inside cars, which are arguably just as private a space as a person’s home? Customers can opt out of the service, McCloskey said.

But most people probably won’t. With most of the cars going to early adopters, it’s likely the vast majority will want use the system, which is connected to a designated web portal where Leaf owners can see the data and statistics associated with their driving. What’s more, this is the wave of the future when it comes to cars, McCloskey said.

“This is not a dilettante thing to make it look cool, it’s not an adornment. This is really quite central to every automaker we talk to right now,” he said.” There is a very exacting strategy around ICT [information and communication technology] … The vehicle now starts to conform to the consumer as opposed to the consumer trying to figure out what (car) is right for them.”