Is Gamification The Solution To Electric Vehicle Load Management?

By  with FleetCarma, p In Electric UtilitiesEV ChargingSmartCharge Rewards

Take a look at anyone’s smartphone and you’ll be sure to find at least one app-based game. We are all compelled by the mechanics of games – scoring points, collecting rewards, competing against our friends, or even complete strangers…

Gamification takes these principals and applies them in the real world, in order to prompt specific behaviors in the users. For businesses, gamification is the process of applying these gaming mechanics in order to build audience engagement, amplify sales, or drive another behavior that is of benefit to the company. But can gamification do more for the world than simply motivate us to buy another game on our smartphones, or to spend more money with a company?

Could gamification even help us to tackle massive challenges for the electrical grid as we transition away from fossil fuels?

The concept of gamification can be traced back over 100 years. In 1896, the Sperry and Hutchinson Company started selling S&H Green Stamps to retailers, which they would then give away to shoppers along with their purchases. Housewives across the US started collecting these stamps and ‘licking and sticking’ them into albums, which could be exchanged for selected items from the S&H product catalogue. By the 1960s, the rewards scheme was so popular that the company claimed to have issued 3 times more stamps than the US postal service.

The specific term appears to have been first coined in 2002 by the British computer programmer, Nick Pelling. He said that he deliberately created the ugly word, gamification, for which he meant to apply “game-like accelerated user interface design to make electronic transactions both enjoyable and fast”.  To learn more about the principles of gamification, read our “How Utilities Can Use Gamification To Change Charging Behavior” article.

Examples of gamification

Thousands of organizations now utilize gamification principles to drive desired user behavior. The resulting outcomes can be as disparate as improving employee recruitment or getting more people to live a greener life, as these examples show:

  • Frequent flyer programs. These programs target our human desires of achievement and competition in order to keep regular flyers loyal to a particular airline. They are extremely effective because users love earning points, reaching the kudos of gold card status, and spending their points on upgrades and discounted travel.
  • America’s Army. The US army invested more than $5 million to launch a first-person shooter game in 2002. By 2008, they had created several ‘virtual army experience’ modules, which were taken to shopping malls and public events across the country. The latest (free) game edition was released in 2013, having proven to be a hugely successful recruitment tool for the army.
  • Recyclebank. Users receive rewards for doing small, everyday tasks that are good for the environment. These could be recycling, reducing water consumption, or buying green products that feature the Recyclebank logo. Users earn points, which can be exchanged for rewards, by following green living practices. And to appeal to our competitive spirits, users can compare themselves against others to gauge how green they really are.

The growing challenge of EV load management

As electric vehicle sales increase, utilities must respond rapidly in order to safely manage this increased demand for EV charging, and to avoid undue stress on the distribution network.

Increase in EV adoption

Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s 2017 forecast predicts that electric vehicle sales will surpass internal combustion engine (ICE) sales by 2038, and that by 2040, plug-in vehicles will represent a third of the global auto fleet. While this growth in the EV market is unlikely to cause any significant concerns for meeting the total nationwide electricity demand, challenges are instead looming at a local distribution level, where there is a considerable risk of overloading local transformers.

Local grid overloading – clustered charging

The issue is centered on the concept of “clustered charging”, where multiple EVs located close together simultaneously charge off the same local transformer. Imagine a residential neighborhood in San Francisco, where half the households on a street own an electric vehicle and everyone returns from work and plugs their car in to charge, all of which are pulling off the same transformer.

Since transformers were not designed to accommodate the large spikes in demand from EV charging, they are particularly vulnerable to overloading. This can result in costly power outages, and reduce the lifespan of the transformer. The risk of overloading from clustered charging is particularly high during peak hours, where the transformer is providing not just for multiple cars on charge, but also for the high demands of the homes and businesses connected to it.

There are three ways in which utilities are currently trying to manage the problems of clustered charging and peak demand:

Build additional infrastructure – Some utilities have attempted to grasp this nettle by investing in building charging stations. Since EVs plugged into smart charging stations are a flexible load, utilities can use the charging vehicles to take pressure off the system, by reducing the size of the ramp between valley and peak loads. However, the costs of building the additional infrastructure are very high. A recent pilot project by San Diego Gas & Electric to install 3,500 EV charging stations at 350 sites was approved for $45 million.

Price signals – A more affordable option for utilities is to shape the charging load with price signals, setting higher prices during peak time periods to disincentivize EV owners from charging their vehicles over these hours. Static price signals are largely outdated due to the difficulty of predicting the dynamic nature of shifting load from vehicle charging. Dynamic price signals are therefore a more effective mechanism to avoid building additional infrastructure. However, both price signal mechanisms are examples of negative enforcement, where the user is ‘penalized’ by the utility firm for charging at peak times of day, instead of being rewarded for beneficial charging behavior.

With direct load control, the utilities regulate the amount of power that a load (in this case, an EV) can consume at any given time, in order to reduce a customer’s energy demand at peak times, or when reliability of the electrical distribution system is threatened. In this case the EV owner is effectively handing over control of their vehicle charging to the utilities, making it an understandably unpopular option. From the owners’ perspective, they lose the ability to override the system when their needs require. 

How gamification principles can help EV load management challenges

Can the grid of tomorrow manage load distribution by rewarding beneficial behavior, rather than penalizing negative behavior? Gamification offers an opportunity for utilities to do just this, by creating a fun and engaging platform that encourages EV owners to charge their vehicles over optimal time periods, or to drive in an eco-friendlier manner, reducing consumption.

Points, levels of charging achievements, badges for completion of challenges, and rewards in the form of discounts from bills all appeal to our universal human desires. Utilities also benefit from the flexibility to introduce new challenges, badges and rewards to keep users engaged and to incentivize different behaviors as required.

SmartCharge Rewards

SmartCharge Rewards by FleetCarma, is a plug-and-play incentive program for utilities that utilizes gamification to help create manageable load growth by shifting EV charging to off-peak hours, without the hassle and cost of installing a submeter. EV owners benefit from reduced costs of charging, and utilities benefit from enhanced electric grid efficiency and resilience, making service more reliable for everyone.

The program uses our C2 device, which is simply plugged into an electric vehicle’s OBD-II port (under the dash). This install takes the EV owner 10 seconds, making it a much more scalable EV load management program than submetering.

All participants receive access to our app & portal, unlocking advanced EV stats from their vehicle. They’re also invited to join our SmartCharge Champions community, where they can share stats and experiences with other like-minded EV owners. To encourage user engagement, we have introduced achievement badges that educate users and reinforce positive charging behaviors.

By implementing gamification into EV charging, we can encourage better-charging behavior that is beneficial to both the utility and the customer.