UPDATED: 9/2/14 1:19 pm ET - adds correction
DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. and a unit of Finnish technology giant Nokia are developing a system that automatically manages the energy efficiency of a plug-in hybrid vehicle as it travels through zones designated by the driver.
The GreenZone system, part of Ford's research into connected vehicle technology, would allow drivers to set up the zones using Nokia's maps on a mobile device, computer or in-car navigation system.
The vehicle's software would automatically switch the vehicle's powertrain to electric-only when in the zones. Motorists could plan their routes in advance to operate most efficiently in the zones they designate. Those zones could include parks, residential quiet zones or densely packed urban areas where the driver wants to minimize pollution.
The system is being designed to eventually help drivers choose routes by factoring in everything that affects energy usage, including live traffic, weather, changes in elevation and so on, according to Johannes Kristinsson, Ford supervisor of advanced connected features.
"The system is a research project now," he says. "We still have a few years of research left" before it goes into a production model.
Ford recently demonstrated a version of the system on a Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid near Ford's headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. Driving from a bustling commercial thoroughfare into a quiet residential street, the Fusion's gasoline engine shut down and the car quietly shifted to all-electric mode. The GreenZone was displayed on the car's navigation screen along with a blue dot showing the car's progress. Once the Fusion emerged from the GreenZone near the school, the gasoline engine kicked back in, all in sync with the map.
Ford's partner is Here, a Nokia subsidiary that provides in-car maps for carmakers in Europe and the U.S.
"We're using location to optimize and personalize the driving experience," said Joel Brush, global account director for connected driving for Here.
Ford supervisor of advanced connected features
Such a system could be set up to shift a car to all-electric mode in special government zones, such as the congestion charging zone in central London, where plug-in hybrids get an exemption from the $19 daily charge.
What this means is interaction between the car and the cloud.
"Setting up a vehicle's features in the cloud is a new paradigm for us," says Kristinsson.
Ford's plug-in hybrids are now capable of making energy-usage calculations using the vehicle's on-board computing power. But the new system promises more because it will connect with the cloud.
"In the cloud we would have access to much more powerful computational resources. So we can get much more precise information in the cloud."
At the moment, Ford's test vehicle does not interact with the cloud.
Kristinsson said Ford and Here need to overcome some obstacles before such a system is cleared for production.
"We must make sure customers are confident with the way we handle their personalized information," he says.
Before the system is approved for production, Ford also needs to make sure its customers are comfortable changing their vehicle's operating settings on a device, he says.
Kristinsson said he got the idea about three years ago when Ford was testing a fleet of prototype plug-in hybrid versions of the Escape. He borrowed one for an evening and called some friends to meet him at his house so he could show off the car's all-electric capabilities. But he was disappointed when he used up the vehicle's battery power on the way home so he couldn't demonstrate the all-electric capability for them.
"That's when I thought -- what if I could tell the car to please save energy for that area," he says.
Ford's two plug-in hybrids now on sale -- the Fusion Energi and C-Max Energi -- both have buttons that allow customers to manually choose when they want to drive in electric-only mode. The system under development would mean they wouldn't have to remember to push the button.
"You can keep your good mileage but get the electric drivability where you want it" without having to think about it, says Kristinsson. "For me I want to keep all the great attributes of a plug-in hybrid, but I can also decide where I want to have this nice quiet, non-polluting electric drive."
Editor's note: Nokia sold its mobile phone business to Microsoft earlier this year. An earlier version of this story said Nokia still owned the unit.