Cleantech, meet mobile. The intersection between these two industries has grown over the past twelve months as companies increasingly look to use smartphones as a platform to enable their services.
In two specific areas, car sharing and the home energy management (HEM) space, companies view mobile as a necessary platform upon which to build relationships with customers. Peer-to-peer car sharing company Getaround’s recent introduction of an iPhone app that can find and unlock a rental car is one example of this. Similarly, in the home energy management market, companies like Control4 have built iPad and iPhone applications to control the lighting, temperature and thermostat in a home.
This trend will accelerate in the future as more and more companies realize that mobile phones and tablets can be a gateway to enabling their products and save them from the R&D costs involved in developing their own hardware dashboards.
Collaborative consumption: car sharing
Collaborative consumption is centered on the concept that services have greater value to a consumer than does ownership. The idea is to increase the utilization of goods and conserve resources, whether it’s through peer-to-peer car sharing, as in the case of RelayRides, or a centralized ownership model like Zipcar’s.
But one of the hitches in not owning a product is that you have to find it — and easily. Zipcar’s iPhone app, for instance, made Time’s 50 best apps of 2011 list precisely because it leveraged the GPS on a mobile device to locate a vehicle and then could unlock the car from the app.
Equally important, these types of consumer experiences with apps are changing the expectations of what a mobile phone can do. Zipcar’s successful $174 million IPO this year, along with estimates that the car sharing market will be worth $3.3 billion by 2016, make car sharing a market ripe for further mobile innovation.
Mobile apps have become even more important in peer-to-peer car sharing, because, unlike Zipcar, these cars are not in specified lots. Instead, users rent vehicles from people in their neighborhood. It is extremely helpful to use a mobile phone to know where the driver is, where the available cars are and to handle authentication and entry. Both leading peer-to-peer car sharing companies — RelayRides, which now has 150 cars and 3,000 customers, and its main competitor, Getaround — have successfully raised capital in the past six months. Getaround nabbed $3.4 million from a group that included Netflix founder Marc Rudolph as well as Michael Arrington’s newly minted CrunchFund. RelayRides took in $5 million from a group led by Google Ventures and August Capital. Getaround released its mobile app this month, and RelayRides founder Shelby Clark recently told me its app is coming soon.
The other aspect of the automotive industry where we’re seeing innovation through mobile phones involves electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. The annual market will grow to 2.9 million vehicles by 2017, which is still very small compared with the roughly 70 million cars sold each year. But what’s interesting is that, in line with many connected vehicle initiatives, electric vehicle producers are releasing smartphone apps that interact with new plug-in vehicles. The all-electric 2012 Nissan Leaf, which is priced between $27,700 and $35,200, depending on federal tax savings, comes with a mobile app that allows a driver to check the state of the battery charge, turn charging on and control the climate system.
GM’s mobile app for the Chevy Volt allows users to unlock their car from their phone (goodbye, remote clickers) and also enables drivers to schedule charging around off-peak grid pricing, an early move to educate consumers about the smart grid. Ford’s mobile app for its Focus Electric helps users plan trips and find charging stations along a planned route, utilizing a MapQuest database.
These are the first steps in changing how users interact with vehicles, and they are beginning in cleantech.
Home energy management: Mobile devices are the new displays
HEM is another area where customers and companies are gravitating toward using mobile devices as a new platform for accessing and controlling other equipment.
It’s a nascent industry built around empowering consumers to monitor and control their energy use, including lighting, thermostats, security and electronics as well as overall power measurement. Estimates are that the market will be worth $3 billion by 2015 and include 28.1 million users, with web-based dashboards occupying over 11 million users and another 2.6 million accessing data via mobile phones. In all probability, though, the split between mobile and web-based users will shift further, with mobile devices eventually overtaking web-based interfaces as market penetration for tablets accelerates.
The introduction of the iPad in 2010 heralded a new era in the HEM market. The larger form factor, which could also double as a connected mobile device, was suddenly very appealing to companies wary of developing their own stand-alone control devices. It also highlighted the fact that consumers don’t want one more control device to learn how to use if they already have one they are comfortable with.
Companies had traditionally directed their efforts at developing stand-alone display devices that weren’t always easy to integrate with other home devices and, quite simply, lacked the design and ease of use that comes from a dedicated hardware designer like Apple. The tablet and smartphone markets have allowed companies to kill off their higher-end, internally developed devices in favor of cheaper devices that enable basic connectivity between utilities, appliances and a display (PC, tablet or mobile). In just such a vein, GE abandoned its project to produce a high-end $1,500 dashboard and opted to build a wireless gateway called the Nucleus that runs about $200. GE then turned around and built a smartphone app so that the control device could be an iPad or an iPhone.
There are a number of examples of companies stepping in with products that leverage mobile apps. Control4 has been a leader in mobile development for HEM, with iPhone and iPad apps at market and an Android app slated for the fourth quarter. Its products control music, home theater and security, in addition to energy tools.
Startup Visible Energy has an even simpler device, a power strip that integrates with an iPhone or iPad. The four-outlet, smart-power strip aims to eliminate standby power and lets users know via its user interface exactly how much energy the consumer is wasting as a result. The company estimates that the $129 device easily saves customers $50 per year and that standby power accounts for 15 percent of power in California homes. It’s a very modest device, but it also carries a very simple entry into home energy management.
In a similarly modest project, Toronto-based startup Ecobee enables, via IP, controlling a thermostat with a smartphone. Being able to adjust one’s heating and cooling while not at home has advantages, both in terms of comfort when returning home and reducing energy use while away.
Aside from honing in on the best display device to reach a larger audience, the other challenge facing the HEM market has been figuring out mainstream channel partners through which to sell the equipment, as the products have been viewed as niche devices for environmentally aware consumers. There are signs that that may be changing with Best Buy’s decision this month to begin rolling out products in three U.S. cities. GE’s Nucleus product is expected to be part of the trial. Other products have not been announced, but Best Buy has indicated that its customers are interested in products that let them remotely control lighting, thermostats and appliances.
Additionally, much thought has been given to companies partnering with telcos or wireless providers, which already have equipment in people’s homes and could make it easier to get energy management devices and services into those homes. Last December Motorola bought home energy management startup 4Home, which has participated in trials with Verizon in New Jersey centered around a suite of applications that include a smart thermostat and an energy-reading device. Google’s recent purchase of Motorola raised the critical question of whether, given Motorola’s position in the set-top-box market and Google’s investment in its mobile Android platform, the combined company now has an even stronger way to get a home energy management device and platform into customers’ homes.
If there’s a common thread to the home energy management market and the automotive market, it’s one of control and data. Whether customers are looking for information about their thermostats or the remaining charge on their EV, the next piece of the puzzle has been using a connected network to allow them to respond to the information by changing their temperature settings or scheduling a charge during off-peak hours. Mobile phones have traditionally been thought of as communications devices for voice, media, texting and audio/video creation; one of the evolving use cases in cleantech is control of other systems and devices. The companies that make mobile applications that seamlessly integrate and give users a feeling, both of control and of helping conserve resources, will have a lot of value to offer consumers.