BARCELONA, SPAIN — I have seen the future of electric car charging, and it’s wireless. Or at least that’s one very possible future — nothing is for certain in the constantly changing world of electric vehicles, what with up and down gas prices, shifting subsidies and Tesla fires.
I am at EVS 27, the big international electric car show, which is being held here simultaneously with the even larger Smart City Expo and World Congress. Wireless solutions are everywhere, including some neat technology that Silver Spring Networks showed me for synchronizing traffic lights with real-time vehicle congestion. On one of the very big EVS 27 stands — right across from BMW (showing off its first-ever i3 electric car) — was Qualcomm, a major wireless player. Yes, it’s the same Qualcomm that’s big in smart phone technology.
The company's Britain-based Halo division is pushing to have multiple major-league carmakers charging wirelessly by the end of 2016. “We think wireless charging is key for electric cars,” said Anthony Thomson, a Qualcomm vice president. “It’s an elegant and efficient way to charge.” One company definitely going this way is Nissan — the electric Infiniti LE (a close relative of the Leaf, above) will charge wirelessly with a WiTricity system when it debuts sometime late next year. That will probably be the first wireless car on the market, but there will be many more.
Wireless charging works like this: A ground-based pad uses magnetic induction to transfer an electric charge to the car with, typically, a 10 percent loss. It’s not limited to slow charging; 20-kilowatt units could charge a car in half an hour. And it’s not limited to charging electric vehicles. Pretty soon, you’ll have a pad or bin in your car (Toyota already offers one) that will charge your phone wirelessly. Who doesn’t want to get rid of charging wires?
To work for your car, the two pads need to be fairly closely aligned, within 150 millimeters. A cellphone app could take care of guiding you in place, but eventually that software will be built into the car. It’s also possible that cars will have last-10-feet self-driving systems to ensure you’re aligned, but it’s an expensive solution.
“Wireless will be everywhere,” said Joe Barrett, a senior director of strategic marketing for Qualcomm. “There won’t be space for big charging posts everywhere; this will be the way forward.” Not everyone agrees with that. “I strongly doubt that wireless charging will cause a great strategic shift in the EV infrastructure sector,” said JB Straubel, chief technical officer at Tesla Motors, which is building its own “Supercharger” network.
Still, wireless is looking more feasible. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has agreed on an 85-kHz frequency for wireless, and it badly needed that kind of standardization. To ensure safety, there’s both foreign body detection — if a screwdriver gets thrown under the car, the charging stops, an alarm goes off, and you get a cellphone message that there’s been a power interruption. (You can start charging again remotely if the system issues an all-clear.) The same thing happens if a kid reaches down to retrieve a ball.
One of the hurdles now will be getting the existence of wireless charging better known, and that probably explained the Formula E racing cars that Qualcomm is sponsoring (above). Formula E is similar to Formula One, except the cars have batteries instead of big gas engines. To combat their range challenges, each driver will get two cars — one of which will always be charging. Formula E, after some delays, is starting next year with an international series that includes races in London and Beijing — and Miami and Los Angeles.
At least at first, only the chase vehicles will be charged wirelessly, but Thomas Nindl, a Qualcomm director of business development, told me it’s technically possible to charge the race cars on the fly with multiple embedded charging pads. “The cars will just charge on, charge off, as they go over the pads,” he said. The company’s research is into how fast they could go — 100 mph? 200 mph? — and still charge effectively.
While I was on the Qualcomm stand, Greg Ballard, the mayor of Indianapolis (above), came by to investigate wireless charging. “We’re definitely interested,” Ballard said. Indianapolis is an under-the-radar electric car pioneer. Ballard issued a proclamation pretty much abandoning gasoline for city vehicles by 2025, and if he can find a source for electric police cars those are going electric too. The French car-sharing service chose Indianapolis, not San Francisco or Seattle, as its first U.S. outpost.
Ballard, who is both a Republican and a 23-year Marine veteran, sees EVs as a matter of national security and freeing us from the tyranny of foreign oil. He pointed out that it can cost $400 to deliver a gallon of gasoline to troops fighting in Afghanistan. In fact, the military itself cites that figure to justify all the research it’s doing into solar, fuel cells and electric cars. And now wireless charging.
Here, on video, is a look at how aligning cars with pads will work in the real world:
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