Getting Smarter All the Time
The appliance landscape continues to evolve with the rise of Internet-connected devices.
“For better or worse, the digital revolution has come to the laundry and kitchen,” wrote William Broad. “Appliances are beeping, blinking, flashing messages and signaling when doors are ajar, cycles over and motors burned out. And the pace of the revolution will probably pick up.” His article, titled “The Digital Revolution Breeds Smart New Appliances,” appeared in the New York Times in 1984.
Smart new appliance technology has attracted attention for a long time. With the dramatic advances in technology in the past few years, appliances—like so many other products—are getting smarter. The smart grid is one potential application. A smart grid enabled appliance could allow consumers to better manage their energy consumption, and provide less stress on the energy grid. Though some sources say that smart grid initiatives seem to have stalled, the drive for smart and connected appliances continues to move forward.
A fully enabled smart grid requires participation from appliance manufacturers, utilities, smart meter companies, government and consumers. And with so many players, the environment can be complicated, says Mike Ballard, senior manager of Microchip’s Home Appliance Solutions Group and cloud enablement team leader. While appliance manufacturers may offer smart grid enabled appliances, in order for the appliance to connect to the grid, many outside forces must come together. However, with the Internet of Things and smart appliances, the number of parties involved shrinks to just two: appliance manufacturers and consumers. This makes the situation vastly simpler, and also allows consumers to control appliances as they would like.
While the smart grid offers a way to save energy and reduce demand on the grid, smart appliances can offer this as well. For example, Ballard says, if energy prices quadruple, consumers may be interested in knowing how expensive each cycle of their dishwasher is, and they can choose to use the lowest setting. By using the light cycle, for example, they could potentially save money without compromising use. The Internet of Things and connected appliances allow consumers to control their appliances better, an idea that continues to gain traction with the ever-present use of smartphones. Though the technology has been available for the past ten years, Ballard says that consumers are finally ready for it. This allows white goods manufacturers to design products that stand out.
Smart But Safe
But even though these smart products have new features, they also come with potential new risks. Security is the top concern for many appliance manufacturers. Although viruses and hackers sound more common in the IT world, as Ballard points out, the case of someone hacking into a baby monitor earlier this year and harassing the baby through the device is just one example of what can go wrong with these types of products. And with larger security breaches in the news—even involving major corporations—it is something designers and manufacturers take very seriously.
Geoff Mulligan, the returning IPSO chairman and previous Presidential Innovation Fellow for NIST/SmartAmerica, says it comes down to security and privacy issues. Most people wouldn’t be bothered if utilities captured energy use information and used it to understand the need for new power plants. But, they would be bothered if the data was used to try and sell them something. Though he says security and privacy are serious issues, he also noted that people may be unnecessarily worried: “I don’t think we’re just one hack away from the takedown of the entire smart grid.”
Security is nonetheless a top concern with connected appliances. According to Parks Associates research, consumers are most interested in connected appliances that offer troubleshooting features as well as safety and security. This is followed by products that are more efficient and that can save them money, says Tom Kerber, director of research, home controls and energy at Parks Associates.
Charlotte Skidmore, AHAM’s Director of Energy and Environmental Policy, notes that many companies are looking at ways to enhance the consumer experience using connectivity. Energy Star is one area where this has taken place. Companies can receive credits for offering smart grid capable products. If consumers are interested in tracking energy consumption, these products would allow for that.
But there are many directions that Internet-enabled appliances could go. “The kitchen can be such a focal point of the home,” says Chris Ely, senior manager of industry analysis and market research at the Consumer Electronics Association. “It stands to reason that the Internet, as it moves to all areas of the house would move to the appliances as well.” This could help consumers control appliances as well as alert them to problems. Ely notes that consumers are becoming more comfortable with the Internet of things, which could provide information on everything from what dog is doing to the status of the smoke alarm.
Where Will This Trend Go?
While these new features may be appealing, there are still some factors delaying adoption of connected homes. According to Barry Haaser, president of Lakeview Group, “One of the issues that’s kind of slowing down the connected home adoption, at least from an energy perspective, is that for the most part utilities haven’t really implemented dynamic pricing programs. Without more dynamic pricing based programs, I think there becomes little incentive for consumers to have connected appliances.” Still, he notes that there is value in allowing consumers to interact with retailers on how the appliance is working.
It seems as if the motivation for a connected home has to go beyond just saving energy. As Mike Bourton, co-founder and vice president of business development at Grid2Home, says, “Everybody thinks that power is an all-you-can-eat buffet, and thinks it’s their right to have energy all the time.” But, if consumers were rewarded for not using power at peak times, this could help adoption of both smart appliances and the smart grid.
According to Mulligan, it’s about time. “I’ve been working on the Internet of Things since 2001,” he says. “At times I feel we are no closer. We are just waiting for the next protocol. People are waiting for the perfect solution.” But this is the wrong approach, he says. Mulligan offered the analogy of Henry Ford. If Ford had waited for highway systems, gas stations across the country, credit card gas pumps and car insurance, we would still be riding horses. Instead, Mulligan says, we should just try building these products and figure things out along the way.
“We really don’t need yet more protocols. We have all that we need, we just need an impetus to do it. Just build something new. Take what’s there, it doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough,” Mulligan says. “In one sense the smart grid has been leading this effort in the Internet of Things. People are out building some real systems with it, instead of waiting for another protocol.”
And Internet-connected products need to have value to draw people in. “We need to find those things that are a compelling reason for people to want to get onto the Internet of Things,” Mulligan says. “The thing that is going to really make this explode is something that we haven’t even thought of yet.”