As electric vehicles move mainstream, so the focus turns to the supporting infrastructure. One technology that has gained little profile to-date is wireless charging but it could have a big role to play.

As so much of every day technology is now wireless, it seems a backward step to tether an electric vehicle to a charging point. How about if you could park a vehicle above a surface-based pad that then automatically charges it via resonant magnetic induction?

The technology seems to be there to do so, with the issues now less about will it work than about the logistics for adoption: the archetypal ‘chicken and egg’ situation.

Graeme Davison, VP of business development and marketing at San Diego-based engineering specialist, Qualcomm, expects the initial adoption will be for home charging. He predicts the technology will initially be incorporated into high-end cars as an add-on feature and the manufacturer will deliver both parts of the technology – the pad for the driveway or garage and the technology for the car.

From here Davison expects the capability will move into lower-spec cars and it will become a standard feature rather than an add-on, as has happened with satellite navigation. The demand for pad-based charging points will shift beyond the home as they become more prevalent, so they will start to appear in workplaces, public and private car parks and elsewhere.

So where’s the catch? Well, there doesn’t actually seem to be one and, indeed, wireless connectivity offers some benefits over wired ones.

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Source: Qualcomm

The Story so far

The technology has been under investigation by Qualcomm for around six years, complementing things that the company was already doing. A research project in Switzerland tested the ability to move large amounts of electrical charge across a gap.

Discussions started with vehicle manufacturers and their electrical component providers about the concept. There was universal interest, says Davison. It was an attractive vision: Park up, walk away, and charging springs to life without any interaction from the customer.

The fact that Qualcomm’s technology underpins other companies’ products is why this publicly listed company is not better known – – although it has made headlines of the wrong type of late with a long-running royalties dispute with Apple and a €997 million fine by EU anti-trust regulators this week for paying Apple to use its chips in the iPhone.

Returning to the wireless charging technology, working in this space was a New Zealand-based company called HaloIPT, a spin-off from University of Auckland. Qualcomm bought this in late 2011. Qualcomm’s offering is now branded as Halo.

Conversations have continued with the manufacturers and component providers, with a view to them licensing the technology to incorporate into the next generation vehicles that are now going through design and development. “A few are very engaged,” says Davison. He expects announcements about prototype vehicles in the next 12 to 18 months and availability in the next two to two-and-a-half years.

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The EV Experience Centre, Milton Keynes

But does it work?

Wireless is now “very close” to being as efficient as cable. It is between 90 to 94 per cent efficient, with the higher charges of 11 and 20 kw actually at the higher end of this range, says Davison. Indeed, plug-in isn’t 100 per cent efficient, he points out, so the difference is only around 2-3 per cent.

Complexity is about the same, he says, and he expects the initial cost to be within ten per cent of the cost of plug-in solutions, falling to zero over time.

Do ice, water, leaves or other phenomenon on the pad reduce or stop charging? Qualcomm’s claim is that this has no impact, because of the magnetic induction and, indeed, it has tested the pad under water to show that it still works.

The technology also supports the much-touted vehicle-to-grid connectivity, thereby supporting the expected model of customers putting electricity back into the grid from their vehicles at optimum times.

With the more traditional flow, from grid to vehicle, the pads could offer power companies a means of balancing loads by managing when they do the charging. This might be through agreements with consumers. Davison cites a consumer who usually charges his or her car overnight to 50 per cent capacity. The power company might have an agreement whereby it will top up this to full capacity at a cheaper or free tariff when there is spare capacity.

Added Benefits

The wireless approach might work well feeding off streetlights. In many cases, streetlight columns are set back from the kerb-side so are not suitable for cable connections. “Wireless fits perfectly into using streetlighting, whereas plug-in does not,” says Davison.

Wireless is also less intrusive from an aesthetics perspective, so might be attractive in heritage areas – “The last thing they want is typically more street furniture” – as well as on home drives and forecourts.

It is debatable whether everyone would see this as a benefit but where pads are available within a shopping mall car park, for instance, information could be provided to the retail outlets when a vehicle engages with one of these, allowing them to make bespoke offers to the customer. Usually, retailers only identify consumers when they use their payment cards at the end of their visit.

There have previously been discussions with urban planners and infrastructure providers but these have restarted now with more focus on how wireless could fit within overall charging frameworks as the technology moves closer. Likely licensees are existing charging network providers.

Small islands with big ambitions

Source: Qualcomm

In terms of which cities or regions might be pioneers, Davison expects these to be the ones that are already ahead with electric vehicle infrastructure. He cites Milton Keynes, one of the recipients of a grant from the UK government’s 2016 £40 million ultra low emission vehicle scheme. In the city’s main shopping centre, centre:mk, there is now an ‘EV Experience Centre’, which provides neutral advice to anyone interested in electric vehicles and the chance to test drive various models. It was opened by the UK’s largest charging network provider, Chargemaster, in mid-2017.

Whether or not wireless replaces cable or becomes part of the mix remains to be seen. Either way, it looks to offer interesting potential and to now be on the cusp of adoption, having been a long while through R&D but with prototype vehicles not far off. Watch this space (no pun intended!).