Smart consumer trends that utilities should know about

Smart cities, smart homes and new smart products are being highlighted for consumers.
Published: Wed 10 Jan 2018

As the biggest consumer electronics show, the annual CES provides a useful stage to review the trends that are being pushed by manufacturers to ‘smarten’ the lives, homes and environments of consumers.

So what is CES 2018, which runs from 9-12 January in Las Vegas, revealing?

Smart cities first

For a start, smart energy and smart cities are having a more significant profile than previously with presentations, discussions and demonstrations led by the likes of Deloitte and Itron.

According to the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which runs the CES events, smart cities are “one of the most important topics at the intersection of technology and society”.

In a recent study the CTA found that smart cities could be “safer and more accessible” and have “immense benefits on the city’s economy” through greater efficiencies in public resources, more affordable public services, increased investments, increased demand for knowledge-based positions and the higher wages these new technology jobs offer.

In what is a first for Itron, “with its focus on smart cities, CES is the perfect platform to showcase the future of smart city innovation,” according to a company statement.

Itron has evolved from a metering company to smart grids and now to an Internet of Things (IoT) solution provider, strengthened by its newly completed acquisition of Silver Spring Networks.

With technologies including earthquake and gas sensing to demonstrate how detection of an earthquake could trigger safety measures such as automatic gas shutoff and networked solar energy management and storage, many consumers will for the first time likely become enthused with the potential that these can bring.

Another area with a high profile - and highlighted by Engerati as a key trend that will shape the utility sector in 2018 - is mobility, particularly electric vehicles but also driverless and connected cars, with its choice as the topic of the event’s keynote from Ford Motor Company’s President and CEO, Jim Hackett.

Smart homes evolve

Smart homes haven’t taken off as quickly as originally had been expected, largely due to the proprietary nature of many of the technologies. That has now changed with demands for standards and interoperability and the rise of smartphones and tablets and their associated app ecosystems.

Of most interest to utilities are the opportunities for energy efficiency through for example smart lighting and the growth of smart appliances and their potential for flexibility and demand management. But other functionalities can be integrated such as entertainment systems or garden irrigation.

Some believe that the next big opportunity for smart homes lies in security monitoring and management.

But perhaps the greatest advances are being made in lifestyles, encompassing both the home and work environments. Advances in technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual and augmented reality – both previously highlighted by Engerati – are changing how individuals can interact with their environment and offer new opportunities for automation, engagement and information as the complexities of the power system increase with decentralisation.

Key trends are the growth of speech recognition and robotics, which could come to play dominant roles in both the home and at work.

However, for these and other data related services, ‘trust’ will be crucial.

For example, surveys by security startup Cone of Silence have found that more than half of smart speaker users are concerned about privacy and believe that hackers, the government or device manufacturers may be listening in.

New smart products

While at the time of writing new product announcements are still emerging, many new and future smart products can be expected and consumers will be able to experience technologies to which they may not normally have access.

With the trend towards bundling of multiple services, an example is Toshiba’s introduction of its Symbio smart home solution comprising a wireless security camera, smart speaker, voice control with Amazon Alexa, intercom, smart sound detector and expandable smart home hub – “all in a single elegant device”.

Thermostat manufacturer Johnson Controls has partnered with Microsoft to develop a smart thermostat named GLAS featuring Cortana.

GE Appliances is launching an online platform named Giddy to gain community input into the design of future products.

5G emerging

Underlying these advances is the communications technology and the focus now is very much on 5G and the innovation it could unleash for an IoT.

Key features are its higher speed and capacity and lower latency, which should bring intelligent edge devices into their own and enable real time decision making to become the norm.

While still at an early stage, AT&T has indicated its intention to launch 5G for mobile along with trials for business applications in “a dozen markets” before the end of 2018 – earlier than the previously expected launch in the 2019/20 timeframe.

“The impact of 5G is groundbreaking and will accelerate innovation in all of the technologies we showcase at CES, from smart home and appliances, drones and robotics to self-driving vehicles and smart city technologies,” says CTA President and CEO Gary Shapiro.

With energy and water at the core of smart cities and smart homes, many new opportunities are opening up for utilities to advance their businesses in this evolving sector. With the excitement these new technologies are generating the key is to maintain and build on that.

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