An impressive app is now available on the Nissan Leaf electric car and soon to be available on Ford’s Focus Electric, announced today at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Here’s how it works: You’re at home and it’s 15 degrees outside. You don’t want to get into a cold car, so you whip out your smart phone and warm your car to 68 degrees. Since the car is still plugged in, you’re not draining the battery. In summer, on a 100 degree day, you tell the car to be cool when you step in. It’s all done by way of an app provided by Airbiquity, the same company responsible for the OnStar system and Ford Sync, a service that provides hands-free calling, directions and emergency assistance.

The Airbiquity app does other things for electric vehicle owners. It removes what’s called “range anxiety,” the fear that you’ll run out of juice before you reach your destination.  The Leaf will only go about 100 miles on a single charge, so the Airbiquity system  tells you first thing in the morning how much of a charge you have.  It also sends you a text message if you haven’t plugged in your car at night, and lets you know where the charging stations are.

The Nissan Leaf in this video is about a mile from where the author of this post grew up.

The Leaf knows who’s in the car by identifying your phone. Your profile comes up and it shows buttons for the radio stations you want. A different driver steps in and their phone is discovered, along with their preferences. Make changes to your profile and your interface looks different the next time you step in.

Although 20,000 people have signed up for a Leaf, they’re rolling out slowly. You can see them now in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Phoenix and Nashville. They cost around $26,000 after the tax savings.

A charging station is only twice the size of a cereal box. If you plug into a 110/120 volt outlet, a charge takes about 20 hours. It takes seven hours with the $2000 charging dock recommended by Nissan and about 30 minutes for the charging stations being made available to businesses. Already, stores like Target and some shopping malls are starting to put in charging stations so that electric vehicle owners will have an incentive to shop there.

From an environmental standpoint, the existence of a lot of cars plugged into outlets in a company’s parking lot is like a mini power plant that saves power companies from having to build more facilities to handle peak demand. Most vehicles are parked an average of 95 percent of the time, so their batteries could be used to let electricity flow from the car to the power lines and back, with a value to the utilities of up to $4,000 per year per car. Researchers at the University of Delaware are trying it out now.

Experts are predicting 300,000 electric vehicles on the road within three years. More info at nissanusa.com and airbiquity.com. Airbiquity is in talks with Tesla Motors and nearly every manufacturer building or considering an electric vehicle.

February 2011 Update: Only 87 Leafs have been sold to date, though there’s a massive amount of back-orders. More here.

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