The electric vehicle market is growing rapidly, and with it comes a number of challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, EV technologies offer significant environmental benefits. On the other hand, there could be consequences plugging these devices into the power grid.
In this podcast, we explore the key challenges that need to be addressed before EVs can become truly mainstream. We will discuss the need for a robust charging infrastructure, the potential for EVs to revolutionize transportation, and how this technology can be safely and sustainably adopted on a large scale.
Our Guests: SECO and Imagen Energy
Our guests this episode are Maurizio Caporali, Chief Product Officer at SECO, a developer of leading-edge solutions, and Ezana Mekonnen, Chief Technology Officer at Imagen Energy, an energy systems provider.
Maurizio and Ezana answer our questions about:
- (2:14) The rise of, and interest in, electric vehicles
- (6:32) How the grid can keep up with the pace of the EV market
- (8:16) Implementing EV technologies in a safe and sustainable way
- (14:19) How EV technologies can utilize existing infrastructure
- (17:08) Futureproofing today’s efforts for scale and flexibility
- (19:29) Leveraging expertise from different companies
- (26:15) EV technology benefits from a user and business perspective
To learn more about electric vehicles, read The Rise of EV Technologies and Charging Stations and AI and CV Power Up the EV Charging Station Boom. For the latest innovations from SECO, follow them on Twitter at @SECO_spa and LinkedIn, and follow Imagen Energy on LinkedIn.
Christina Cardoza: Hello and welcome to the IoT Chat, where we explore the latest developments in the Internet of Things. I’m your host, Christina Cardoza, Editorial Director of insight.tech. And today we’re talking about the rise of electric vehicles and the infrastructure that goes into making this possible. Joining us today we have Maurizio Caporali from SECO, and Ezana Mekonnen from Imagen Energy.
So, before we jump into the conversation, let’s get to know our guests a bit more. Maurizio, you’ve been on the podcast with us quite a bit, but for those who haven’t listened to those recordings I suggest you go back and check them out. But tell us more about yourself and what you do at SECO.
Maurizio Caporali: Okay, sure. I’m the Chief Product Officer of the SECO Group. We are a global company, a leader on industrial microcomputer, and I follow the life cycles of our products and the design of new products. We have an extended catalog of more than 100 off-the-shelf products.
Christina Cardoza: Great, looking forward to hearing more about that. But Ezana, welcome to the podcast. Tell us more about yourself and Imagen Energy.
Ezana Mekonnen: Yeah, thanks for having me. I am the Co-Founder and CTO of Imagen Energy. My background is power-electronics engineer. I’ve worked on various types of power converter for different applications. Here at Imagen Energy we make a compact, efficient power converters for electric vehicle–charging applications.
Christina Cardoza: Great. Of course power and energy are going to be a big part of this electric vehicle conversation. I’m sure everybody listening to this podcast, just not only in the IoT world, but electric vehicles seem to be everywhere. It’s in the news. You have businesses and governments all over giving incentives, even utilities giving incentives, to make this move towards electric vehicles.
So I wanted to start off this conversation today with you, Maurizio. If you could just talk to us about what’s driving this rise and the interest in electric vehicles.
Maurizio Caporali: Electric vehicles, as you mentioned, Christina, are a solution and products that have changed a lot actually the world of the industry of automotives. More in general is the breakdown with respect to the evolution of the combustion-automotive solution.
Now, the direction of electric vehicles changed a lot this industry in different ways. For sure, electric vehicle don’t use fossil fuels—possibly the reduction of pollution on a specific environment, for example the city where there are many vehicles, and this could be very important.
Then there are many aspects interesting for the end user. For example, driving comfort. You know, where electric vehicles are something that is very quiet, and also, from vibration point of view, it’s a change of life in some way. Less maintenance, because this kind of solution is having less maintenance on the part of the components, etc., and less failures on the movement, on the part of movement.
Another very important consideration is from the technological side, is more our part in the sense of knowledge and in the sense of SECO’s background. As you probably know, electric vehicles have a lot of technology inside. It’s a complex environment where there are computers, there are many sensors, and more than, in a general respect, the standard car, a combustion car, we have more technology.
In some ways we think about also self-driving cars more related to electric vehicles. So that is not directly considered, but more in general they are more related to electric vehicles. On the other hand, there are different interactions, no? For example, the possibility to interact with the car remotely, no? This is in particular for electric vehicles, where it gives the possibility to the end user to have all the information in the application of the smartphone, the control, the possibility to turn on the air conditioning before entering the car, to have an overview of the position, to have all the information on the car directly on the application.
The last point from a technological point of view is the improvement of the battery technology. The battery is the core of electric vehicles in some way. Then this is the last important point.
Christina Cardoza: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of great stuff in there—just the amount of technology that goes into making this happen and all the advancements that happened in the industry that is making it more accessible, more sustainable. The sustainability aspect of all of this is something particularly interesting to me, because you have the rise of electric vehicles; that means that you’re going to have more energy being taken away from the power grid more endpoints being plugged into the power grid. And at the same point, utilities have this big mission to modernize the power grid, to make sure that it’s reliable and sustainable for the future. And I can just imagine this influx of energy being plugged into it does have an impact on it, but yet we have the, like I mentioned, government regulations and these utilities giving incentives for people to move over to the electric vehicles.
So, Ezana, I’m curious what the impact is on the power grid, and how can we ensure that we’re able to continue this, keep up with this increase of electric vehicles?
Ezana Mekonnen: Yeah, absolutely. I think the impact of electric vehicles into the grid is profound. This is by way of added demand; if not managed correctly it can add a strain into the grid. But when it comes to the grid, it’s not always a demand-side problem. We’ve seen similar issues when we introduce PV solar power into the grid, where excess supply of energy caused similar strain into the grid.
So when it comes to the grid, it’s the balance of supply and demand that’s critical. And this is done through smart loads, smart grids that can better coordinate the demand and supply, and then also added storage into the system so that it can better buffer the energy coming from renewable as well as the demand needed by electric vehicles.
Christina Cardoza: That’s a great point, and going back to what Maurizio was talking about, just the technology that goes into it—there’s not only a lot of technology that goes into these cars, but when we’re talking about charging them there’s a lot of charging stations that need to happen across cities and where people live, so that it’s not only they’re charging it at home, but if they’re driving and they’re low on power they can stop somewhere and make sure that they can get to their destination safely.
I’m curious what kind of infrastructure do we have set up that we are able to have multiple different charging solutions around, and how does that have an impact on the power grid? You know, how do we do this in a safe and sustainable way, Maurizio?
Maurizio Caporali: This is the important point of the evolution of electric vehicles, because probably you understand that first we started with electric vehicles. Now we are thinking about of the infrastructure of charging stations, and all the aspects related on this critical point for electric vehicles because this is part that could be very important. And the evolution of the technology is very fast, is very rapid. And the same way the key point is to permit the growth of electric vehicles, because without the part of charging stations this change could not be possible—this evolution for this kind of solution.
Electric vehicle charging—there are different solutions. It’s called—they are defined by level, no? Level one or level two or level three. In some ways, what is our interest is on the fast charging station—the possibility to charge the vehicles in a very fast time, to give the opportunity to the end user to charge the vehicle during the trip with the possibility to do this in few minutes. And also to give the possibility to have information about the positioning, about the status of the availability of the charging station and the characteristics of the charging station with respect to the car—the communication between cars and charging stations in an open way.
To do this there are important aspects that are related to technology—technology that is not only hardware, it’s also software. It is very important to have this consideration between the hardware side and the part of control and service on top of the hardware. And we have analyzed this aspect. We have defined a solution that can work with, interact with, the physical space, with the ambient temperature, in different way. On one hand, with sensors, ambient sensors, to understand the status of the ambient. On the other hand, having an interface for the end user—the capability to give information to the end user.
This possibility for EV chargers will be very pervasive in physical space—if we talk about the highway or the city, this could be a very important point, in some way a point of interest in the sense of data. The charging station can produce a lot of data and information that can give to the end user and the citizen information about the ambient, and can be an important point of information also for municipality, also for public activities. On the other hand, give the opportunity to the cars and to the end user to talk and to have this kind of information. That is not only the way to charge the car, but it’s also a data information system.
The other important point is to manage a fleet of these charging stations and to give the possibility of avoiding the single point of failure. This is another important point, because with the change from fossil fuel to electricity, we need to guarantee the possibility of charging the car to the end user. It is very important to have a solution that is very strong from this point of view, to give the possibility to manage and to understand if there are critical points on the network, if there are critical points on a single charging station, and to have all this information ready and available immediately. Also with predictive analysis information that arrives from the status of the entire fleet of charging stations.
On the other hand, there is the possibility to control the status of the vehicle, or if there are vehicles in front of the charge station to alert the user when the car is ready. All this information can be done also with the open-standard protocol that is available for these kind of solutions.
Christina Cardoza: I’m just curious, Maurizio, because you at SECO, you guys developed the CLEA electric vehicle charging station. So, what does it take to get these charging stations installed on highways or within cities? Do you have to build the infrastructure from the ground up? Or do these cities have existing infrastructure that you’re able to build on?
Maurizio Caporali: The important aspect that we have analyzed in this market is the flexibility of the solution, then we give the opportunity to customize the last level of the solution for the company. They need to install the solution with specific functionality. This is in some ways typical, our characteristic, to define something that is very flexible and very modular, then give the opportunity to have a customizable solution.
On the other hand, the other important aspect is to make this part available from the hardware point of view and also from the software point of view. Then to give a set of tools to define the right service and right solution for different levels of user. Because there are the parts that manage the maintenance of the infrastructure, and there is the marketing side. There is the possibility to manage remotely the information, the pricing, the advertising system, and also to give the opportunity to the end user to have all the information about the status about the availability directly with the application on the smartphone.
Then our solution gives all this opportunity in the sense of a library, SDK, to develop the single application for different levels of customer. On the other hand, from our point of view, to give the opportunity to add a large screen for information, to add a payment system, to add many sensors that can enable a different level of services depending on the place where the device will be installed.
Christina Cardoza: Great. Now I’m wondering, Ezana, from your point of view, you were talking about the way that you have just seen the power grid and this evolution with power consumption evolve over the last few years when we have solar and new things coming up. So I’m curious—all of this sounds great, and it’s initiatives that we’re doing today, but we want to make sure that we can support electrical vehicles for a long time to come—this seems to be the way that we’re moving towards in the future. So how do we ensure that all the efforts we’re doing today continue to scale, continue to be flexible, and we can continue to evolve and modernize as the demand and the increase evolves?
Ezana Mekonnen: Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s two parts to that. You know, the first one, it’s very crucial that we have a long-term view of what we’re actually deploying. This is the future infrastructure, right? And, for instance, we are developing our charger to be bi-directional, not because it’s needed now, because EV drivers right now, they just want to make sure they’ll be able to charge the car. But making sure that the infrastructure is in place for not only charging a vehicle but also being able to pull the energy back to the grid. And this will turn EV from being a liability to the grid into an asset for the grid with essentially a battery on wheel, right?
So, the second aspect is that EV charging owners worry about what they call “stranded asset,” where they have a charging station and it doesn’t get utilization, doesn’t get enough usage. So we have an architecture that can allow us to deploy a charging station and then add a charging port to it as the utilization goes up. And so this will help keep up the infrastructure needed with the adaption of electric vehicles, and it can continue to grow.
Christina Cardoza: Great. And, you know, another point here is that there’s—obviously we have the power aspect, we have the charging aspect, we have the electric vehicles themselves. There’s so much that goes into making this happen that I think it’s obvious that no one company can do this alone. It really takes support from the entire industry, and one of the reasons why we had Imagen and SECO both join this podcast is because I know there’s even a partnership between you two as well as Intel. I should mention the IoT Chat and insight.tech, we are Intel sponsored. But I’m curious what the relationship is between Intel, SECO, and Imagen. What is the technology and the expertise that you guys are all leveraging from each other? Ezana, I’ll throw that one at you first.
Ezana Mekonnen: We realized these chargers won’t be just a charger. They’re multifunctional units, similar to how our camera—our phones are not just a phone, but a camera, GPS system, and more. So while we focused on making a compact converter that’s sufficient for the power conversion and the delivery, we look to SECO for the added functionality such as their CLEA AI, their capability on image processing, audio processing, and then being able to drive a large screen for advertisement which could potentially either offset cost of charging or provide functionality, not just for the EV charger user but also the business around it.
So we think having this infrastructure out there that is capable of a lot of processing capability could evolve to something else beyond just charging. And Intel has been just great in terms of the technology that they’re offering us—specifically an FPGA, which is what we’re using for our power conversion, a very reliable and robust method of developing power conversion, especially as we try to make it efficient and extremely compact. And we believe that it takes more than any one company to develop this future infrastructure, and we’re happy that we’re working with SECO and Intel.
Christina Cardoza: Great. And, Maurizio, I’m curious from your end how you’re leveraging Imagen and Intel. Ezana spoke about FPGAs—I know that’s really important for the security aspect of all of this too. Something you mentioned was fleet management and remote management. So, I’m wondering what other technologies from Intel or Imagen go into your EV charging solution, or the value of these partnerships between all these companies?
Maurizio Caporali: Yes, the core part of our technology is based on an Intel chip. In particular, we are using the last generation of industrial solution of Intel—low power consumption that is based on the Atom® series processor. These processors are very flexible, very powerful, with very, very low power consumption. This is another important point—with the possibility to analyze a lot of complex data that is also coming from different kind of sensors, all this data can be analyzed in real time; that gives the opportunity also to not send all the information, all the data, to the cloud, but it can be pre-analyzed directly on the device, on the edge device, and give only the information, the alert, to the control room. And this is possible thanks to the technology also of OpenVINO™, based on the artificial intelligence model optimization of the SDK, compatible with all the Intel solutions.
On the other hand, this kind of solution has industrial-grade efficiency in the sense of temperature, and also the long-life fundamental for this kind of architecture that gives the opportunity to maintain this solution for more than 10 years. This is also very interesting. On the other hand, as I mentioned before, the possibility to define this solution as a modular solution and the possibility to have a series of interfaces and IOs. For example, we have a direct connection with the electronics of Imagen Energy to exchange the data, the information, between the two computers, the two systems, in the right way, in the perfect way.
This has given us also the opportunity in this collaboration—starting from the solution of Imagen that is more related to the power efficiency of the energy conversion; and our solution, that is to manage all data on top of the creation of energy, of the interfacing with the current, the infrastructure, and also the managing of all human interface based on a big screen that can be managed, also a 4K big screen, for all the information for the end user. And the connectivity that could be mobile, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, to have all the communication between the charging station and the vehicles and the end user—this maximum flexibility from the Intel solution in this way.
Christina Cardoza: So, lots of great technology and partnerships working together to make this all happen. And when you talk about all the technology that is in these vehicles or these charging solutions, I’m sure that Intel processor really is just helping to make sure the performance is high quality and that the speed gets there, and that, like you mentioned, low power consumption so it’s not overcharging anything. So this is all great news for electric vehicles.
I’m curious, Maurizio, you had it sprinkled in there a couple times in the conversation, but if we can expand on beyond sustainability. Because that’s one of the big driving forces of the move to electric vehicles—just the sustainability benefits it’s going to bring to society. But I’m curious, from a user and business perspective, what are the benefits that they’re going to get moving to this new transportation model and vehicle?
Maurizio Caporali: Yes, for sure, as mentioned before, this is a very important point for the evolution of the technology, no? The technology that could be related to the communication between machine to machine, the possibility to manage the energy network in the right way. We need to have data information and the possibility to communicate with the energy network and the internet network the same way. Plus, all the sensors, all the devices, electric vehicles, that are around in the cities.
Technology innovation also for security reasons. The possibility to have information about the nearby EV charger that can come from different kinds of proximity sensors or camera sensors, that can give to the municipality and police important data. This is could be an important aspect of the possibility to have open system, to give new kinds of services. Otherwise, if the system will be closed, this could be difficult. Now the technology give us the opportunity to analyze all this information, all this data, that can be sent and directed to different kinds of user and companies.
Christina Cardoza: This has been a great conversation. I can’t wait to see where else the electric vehicle industry is going. I think in this conversation we’ve only scratched the surface of what is involved and what goes into this. And I think it’s just the beginning for this EV landscape. So, lots to look forward to. Unfortunately, we are running out of time in our conversation today. So before we go I just want to throw it back to each of you. Any final thoughts or key takeaways you want to leave our listeners with today? Ezana, we’ll start with you.
Ezana Mekonnen: This is just an exciting time—this big, big revolution happening with the conversion of transportation into electric. And it can bring about a lot of new opportunity, new markets, and a more sustainable future. So this is an exciting time.
Christina Cardoza: Great. And, Maurizio, anything you want to leave us with today?
Maurizio Caporali: Yes, the change will happen soon. And this can be very important for the new possibilities that are related to the possibility of interaction between the end user and the environment in the right way. And the possibility to use in the right way the electric vehicles for a new generation also of EV charging more efficiently, and more simple and more smart for the next future of charging and traveling away.
Christina Cardoza: Great. Well, I will be watching to see what else comes out of your respective companies, as well as the partnership that you guys have—SECO, Imagen, and Intel—what else grows out of there in the future, because I know there’s still lots to come. But just want to thank you both again for the insightful and informative conversation. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. Until next time, this has been the IoT Chat.
The preceding transcript is provided to ensure accessibility and is intended to accurately capture an informal conversation. The transcript may contain improper uses of trademarked terms and as such should not be used for any other purposes. For more information, please see the Intel® trademark information.
This transcript was edited by Erin Noble, copy editor.