General Motors, Ford and other carmakers are increasingly trying to sell consumers on a future where fleets of battery-powered cars cruise along U.S. highways and byways. Turning such a vision into reality, however, requires far more than simply making electric cars available—drivers need to know how, when and where they will be able to recharge their batteries, not to mention how much it is going to cost.

The addition of an electric car to a home's electrical system is not just a new load, it's a big load—in some places doubling what a home currently consumes, says Paul Fulton, general manager of Cisco Systems's Prosumer Unit (which works on both consumer and professional networking technology).

If the hybrid automobile market of the past several years is any indication, electric vehicles will likely be adopted first by more affluent people living in older neighborhoods, Fulton says. The aging electricity transmission systems found in such areas mean that electricity consumption has to be managed efficiently so that drivers do not overload the system and create power outages, a situation that could sour early adopters on the practicality of owning an electric car.

One proposed approach to simplify potential headaches is to enable the monitoring and management of electric car charging through centralized home energy-management systems making their way to market from Cisco, OpenPeak, SilverPAC and others.

ECOtality, Inc., a San Francisco–based maker of home battery-charging stations, on Monday announced that electric-vehicle drivers and homeowners will by midyear be able to manage the company's Blink EV Charging Station via Cisco's Home Energy Controller (HEC). The HEC is a portable wireless gadget with an 18-centimeter touch screen used for centrally the monitoring and managing the amount of energy used by home appliances, including air conditioners, pool pumps and heaters.

ECOtality designed Blink to communicate directly with energy utilities to determine off-peak and low-cost charging times. "Hypothetically we can tell a utility when chargers in a certain neighborhood are programmed to go on, and the utility can put that information into their demand response–management systems," ECOtality vice president of corporate development Colin Read says.

The integration of electric-vehicle charging stations with home energy management systems is an important, albeit incremental, step forward for the adoption of electric cars, which face a crucial period in 2011. Chevy's Volt (which runs on a battery but also has a gas-burning engine to recharge the battery if it is depleted mid-trip) and Nissan's all-electric LEAFs are now hitting the road and will be followed later this year by Ford's all-electric Focus. If drivers cannot manage to keep their batteries charged, such vehicles are likely to go the way of the EV1, which GM abandoned more than a decade ago.

Plans are underway by ECOtality and competitors Coulomb Technologies and AeroVironment to build fast-charging stations that drivers can access at restaurants and retail locations, but the majority of charging is likely to take place at home overnight. "We're trying to provide the consumer easier and more streamlined ways to control and understand their home energy usage, including electric-vehicle consumption," Read says. "We want EVs to be economically viable, and as a result that means the energy going into the car has to be more affordable than the energy going into an internal combustion engine." Not an easy task given the combustion engine's more than century-long head start.