In regions where the power grid is already close to being taxed to the limit, the prospect of an increasing number of electric vehicles all plugging in at the same time has utilities and others looking for solutions to prevent an overload.

One idea being collaborated upon between IBM, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., and Honda is a project to enable electric vehicles and the power grid to essentially “talk” to each other.

The concept – generally in line with other such projects happening around the globe known as the “smart grid” – is that by advanced communications, EV owners will be able to figure out the best times to charge their vehicles.

A number of benefits considered potentially win-win are being touted for the idea aside from merely preventing a grid system overload, including savings for the EV motorist. For example, drawing the juice during the late night when off-peak rates are in effect, or during the early morning when there’s also less grid demand.

The system would also enable owners to select charging based on their vehicle’s battery condition, such as by delaying the need to charge until the battery is close to being depleted.

So how exactly would it work? Although still a work in progress, IBM’s online cloud system would theoretically enable vehicles to communicate with the grid, which is owned by PG&E.

“The novel concept is basically taking the vehicle data – such as battery’s state of charge – and grid data from PG&E to create an optimal charge schedule for the EV so we aren’t taxing the grid or inconveniencing the driver,” remarked Clay Luthy, IBM’s global distributed energy resource manager.

Currently, IBM is working with Honda to see if its cloud-based software is able to communicate with the automaker’s Fit EV during a series of preliminary tests. A small number of vehicles and motorists are testing the setup under real world conditions to see if it will be possible to implement on a large scale. The car’s on-board telemetry will be able to determine if the vehicle needs charging and when, based on the condition of the battery, with decisions made in seconds to ensure seamless vehicle operation.

Although there’s a fear of Big Brother here, IBM is adamant that motorists will have the ability to override the system, retaining the ability when and where they choose to charge up their electric vehicle, instead of it being done purely automatically.

However, there are some significant obstacles to overcome in order to make such a situation an actual reality, namely the fact that presently, it’s very difficult for charging companies to predict local loads on the grid, since vehicles can be plugged in anywhere. Not only that, but charging EVs already places huge demands on the power grid. During a quick charge cycle, one EV can place as much demand on the grid as several individual homes, something Luthy mentioned during an interview with Innovation News Daily.

Nevertheless, IBM believes that by developing a smart charging system, not only will it help minimize the impact of EVs on the power grid, it will also help boost the acceptance of EVs among consumers.

Although IBM has also been working on a number of related projects – including in Switzerland in which a smartphone app gives the choice of set-it-and-forget-it, or immediate top up, or late night/off peak demand pricing – the company has not disclosed a timeline nor cost of its ambitions smart grid project.

MSNBC