In a world in which electronic devices are increasingly being liberated from cables and wires, the idea that an electric vehicle should be recharged by plugging it in seems at odds with the high-tech nature of EVs. To overcome this challenge, a host of companies are looking at the potential for inductive power transfer, or wireless charging.
In April 2011, WiTricity Corporation and Toyota teamed up to develop wireless charging technology for plug-in hybrids and EVs. Delphi Automotive has also equipped several test vehicles with its wireless charging system, featuring technology developed by WiTricity.
A year later, in April 2012, Tokyo-based IHI Corp entered into a long-term agreement with WiTricity to manufacture and supply globally wireless charging systems for automotive and industrial applications; IHI, WiTricity and Mitsubishi had already been developing wireless charging components for EVs.
Likewise, Bombardier’s e-mobility subsidiary, Primove, is involved in the development of inductive charging for cars, buses and light rail, and has a dedicated e-mobility facility in Mannheim, Germany. In 2012, Primove demonstrated the wireless transfer of power to a tram in Augsburg, Germany, and has begun testing the technology on a passenger van.
Megatrends spoke to Momentum Dynamics, Qualcomm and Ampium – three companies travelling along very different paths towards the same goal of wireless power transfer.
Based in Malvern, Philadelphia, Momentum Dynamics was established in 2009 and develops wireless power charging technology for electric vehicles. In an interview with Automotive World at CV Megatrends USA 2012, the Chief Executive of Momentum Dynamics, Andy Daga, said, “Our primary market is commercial fleet vehicles, where we can charge an electric commercial vehicle at 60,000 Watts – which is far higher than is required for a passenger vehicle.”
Wireless charging has long been the Holy Grail for EVs, and although it focuses on CVs, Momentum Dynamics has also perfected the technology for light vehicles.
Explaining why he believes wireless charging makes more sense for fixed route CV applications than for LVs, Daga said, “commercial vehicles have the real problem of heavy duty regular duty cycles, in which they have six or seven day week operations that may run 15, 16 or even 20 hours a day. For an EV to operate under those conditions, they need to be recharged intermittently during the course of their route. We provide a technology that solves that problem, by allowing that vehicle to make short period stops, take enough charge of power and to continue along its route, thereby allowing the vehicle to stay in circulation all day long.”
That may sound ideal but Daga is keen to emphasise that it’s about more than just convenience. “The real point is that it is automatic. The driver of an electric commercial vehicle or car does not need to take any action other than park in order to charge their vehicle. This enables all-weather, vandal-free opportunity charging. Opportunity charging is key to both vehicle range extension and battery lifetime extension – both crucial aspects that enable OEMs to sell more EVs.”
Interest in Momentum Dynamics’ technology “has outstripped our expectations,” says Daga. “We have major package delivery companies coming to us asking for a solution. There is no solution in the plug-in paradigm for a commercial vehicle. We’ve had a bus company come to us, and fleets and shuttle bus companies that run short duration routes, such as around university campuses. The need for clean technology in bus routes has been underestimated by most parties. It is in demand in universities and it is in demand by corporations which have programmes that can be met by no other method.”
The implementation of wireless charging would of course require embedding the technology in road surfaces. But rather than being frowned upon by authorities, Daga says the company has received positive feedback. “We have a bus transportation authority in Pennsylvania that is so eager to deploy this technology that they have gone to the state of Pennsylvania’s department of transportation and asked for money to help deploy this system as a trial. They want to see what they can do to reduce their fuel costs. They’ve tried all the alternative fuels, but none has satisfied their needs. This is the first time they have seen an application that can cut their costs dramatically, and so they are involving state authorities in a programme to outlay the system in the field.” Momentum Dynamics has also been approached by a rental car company in California and four major utility companies keen to get acquainted with the technology.
In terms of a timeframe for the implementation of wireless charging technology, Daga sees 2013 as a “big breakout year” for the deployment of multiple pilot programmes for passenger class-shuttle buses across the US; the company is also hoping to establish a pilot programme in London.
Daga refers to wireless charging as an emerging technology that is here now. He also emphasises that opportunity charging increases range and reduces TCO; he is keen to dispel what he sees as myths about the cost of the technology versus wired charging. “Don’t believe everything you read,” he says. “It’s less expensive.”
And not only is there a lower cost, says Daga, but the issues of power and price are closely linked. “It is not merely the provision of high power levels to vehicles, like 60 kW to a bus, for example, but being able to afford it. The cost of a current generation Level 3 high voltage DC off-board charger, at about US$75,000, is simply too high to promote widespread deployment. We need to deliver – and Momentum Dynamics will deliver – an inductive charging system at well under US$10,000.”
Wireless charging on trial
In late December 2012, AMP Electric Vehicles, which manufactures electric drive systems for Class 3-6 commercial truck platforms, announced a joint venture with Momentum Dynamics to supply the fully electric vehicles and wireless charging pads for a pilot programme run by Pennsylvania’s Berks Area Regional Transportation Authority (BARTA). The pilot will begin in the first half of 2013.
According to the AMP statement, BARTA is not only the first major transportation authority in Pennsylvania to deploy fully electric vehicles, but it is also the first in the US to deploy electric paratransit vehicles. Momentum Dynamics is one of the organisations funding the project, alongside the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – Department of Environmental Protection, and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
Like Momentum Dynamics, Qualcomm Halo is involved in trial programmes. In London, it is collaborating with Chargemaster, Addison Lee, Transport for London (TfL) and the Mayor of London’s office, on the first large scale wireless electric vehicle charging (WEVC) consortium.
“We chose London because it is a megacity and had the will to take steps to clean up the transport infrastructure. But it’s also to look at things like user experience, different user cases, fleet operated vehicles versus car share versus private vehicles – and to prove that there is a sustainable business case for wireless charging and a charging infrastructure. We invite OEMs to put vehicles into that trial and test the wireless charging hardware.”
The Halo effect
Seeing the potential for wireless charging, in 2011, Qualcomm acquired HaloIPT, the Auckland, New Zealand-based inductive power transfer company best known for having developed the induction charging system for the Rolls-Royce 102EX experimental EV. With its name attached to such a premium product, Qualcomm Halo could easily have been labelled as a supplier of a premium technology. Dr. Anthony Thomson, Vice President of Business Development and Marketing at Qualcomm, concedes that the technology was initially viewed as such, but the company is now receiving considerable interest from more mainstream OEMs.
“Over the years we’ve worked with a number of OEMs and integrated this into their vehicles. They tend to be confidential relationships which are ongoing. Renault is the first OEM who we’ve come out with and publicised work focused on the London trial.” Thomson says there is a trend towards considering high-powered wireless charging for use on premium cars, and lower-powered wireless charging for mainstream cars, something that would be “very, very helpful to sales of vehicles at the volume level”.
Little and often
Qualcomm Halo promotes the idea of little and often charging, which suggests that fixed route vehicles, specifically buses, would be an ideal target. However, unlike Momentum Dynamics, Qualcomm Halo’s focus is on cars and light goods vehicles because of the vehicle volumes involved. “There are some bus systems operating which show the user case to be very good, and reduction of battery mass of about two-thirds, which is for putting a single infrastructure in and having multiple buses on a route, for example. We’ve always had an interest in that.” The CV sector has not been ruled out, however. “We do have technology which does very high power and relationships with companies who are progressing that. So we’re effectively involved but probably not as vocally or publically involved.”
When people talk about fuel cell vehicles, implementation is always said to be around ten years away; Thomson’s estimates for when wireless charging will be an option for passenger car consumers are somewhat less vague.
“That’s the big question, isn’t it? If you look at normal advanced engineering and production engineering, or serious production engineering timetables, validation timetables of auto manufacturers, you would really struggle to get anything out, and volume, before 2016. We have a number of projects in various states of undress with OEMs around the world, which would either deliver on or about that date or soon after.”
Whilst wireless charging removes the need for the wire, on-demand charging also removes the need for the battery. Does Thomson believe this is a viable option? “Automatic guided vehicles have been using on-demand wireless power for 20 years. It’s very possible. Our approach would be to get stationary charging into the market and get people comfortable with it, with dynamic charging as the long-term goal.”
Again, on-demand, or dynamic charging is a technology that is a long way from implementation. “We’re talking ten years before we see any major installs. We’re working on it actively, and we will make announcements in due course when we get demonstrations going and that sort of thing. We’ve got lab demonstrations and very, very short runs, but the next step is to get that into segments of road and prove it out. I would think that in five years, we could see some demonstration level technology.”
Another company focused on dynamic power transfer is Ampium, founded in the UK in 2009 by Andrew Howe and Andrew Danes. “We wanted to take grid electricity, get it into the road and across to the car at the point of use, eliminating the energy storage battery – the problem with the electric vehicle proposition.”
The start-up company has installed its first road coils in a 20m section of road in Cambridge, UK. “We’ve focused on low infrastructure costs and on reusing processes and standards that are already used to put wires into the road. Wires are already in the road for presence detection, both on motorways and in urban environments around traffic lights. Our system will take grid electricity, upgrade infrastructure on the road, and wirelessly transport the energy that you need from the road to the car.”
Ampium’s technology is intended for hybrids. “We bought a Toyota Prius, put a pickup coil on it, and demonstrated 20 kilowatts of power transfer into its DC bus,” explains Howe. With a hybrid, users could stray “off infrastructure”, that is, away from mainstream roads where wires have been installed and onto private or rural roads.
To convert Ampium’s Toyota Prius demonstrator involved “very little work”, says Howe. “We put a pickup coil on it and a small amount of power electronics and connected it onto those orange wires in the boot, with a battery sitting on it, and transferred 20 kilowatts into the car. Very little work is required on an existing battery electric vehicle.”
In addition to the conversion requiring minimal conversion, Howe describes the cost of the process as highly attractive. “The cost of adding the technology to a hybrid is a matter of putting a pickup coil on it and some power electronics. You’re talking a few hundred [British] pounds of parts in volume manufacture rather than thousands for putting a battery on.”
But Ampium wants to go one step further than converting hybrid cars. “Our proposition is that you would take a vehicle, add a pickup coil and a fairly small motor, and create a hybrid car using road powered electricity when you’re cruising.”
Whilst the case for wireless charging may be convincing long term, it would bring with it considerable short term disruption as the wireless charging technology is embedded into the wider infrastructure. There would also be considerable cost involved in carrying out such projects.
Qualcomm Halo’s Thomson disagrees. “Look at putting a charging bollard in. If you’re burying a 1,500 to 1,800 mm tall charging bollard in the ground, you’ve got to put a third of it under the ground and two thirds of it above. You’re putting quite a significant amount of hardware into the ground and in a congested city like London that’s difficult even before you’ve considered the sub-terrain environment with telephone cabling and fibres. Our infrastructure is actually quite petite and initially we’re talking about probably just putting in low-profile pads on the surface. We think the civil works involved would be less than with a plug-in system.”
Taking a big-picture view of the question, Ampium’s Howe sums up philosophically. The infrastructure would cost a considerable amount of money, he agrees, “but national scale infrastructure is always a lot of money. If you look at the cost of building a nuclear power plant, I am sure that we could upgrade our trunk road infrastructure for that cost and decarbonise our road transport.”
Martin Kahl is the Editor of Automotive World