ELECTRIC VEHICLES:

No need to plug in that car; it's getting charged by the manhole covers

Drifting off to sleep, you wake with a jolt: You forgot to plug in your electric car.

Relax. You have wireless charging. Your car started to replenish power when you parked it over the charging pad in your garage.

It's not a dream. Wireless charging for electric cars is coming faster than most experts predicted.

Wireless charging technology can already be found at the homes of Google Inc. and Duke Energy Corp. employees; embedded in Pepsi trucks and on buses in Long Beach, Calif.; and disguised as manhole covers in New York City. HEVO Power, which is conducting the manhole pilot with New York University, has even developed an app to help find vacant wireless-charging parking spots and ensure correct alignment over the charger.

The U.S. pilots are among a dozen or so wireless projects scattered around the world -- in Germany, Italy, China, South Korea, Japan, England and Singapore (see sidebar).

And it's going to make an appearance next year at the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile's electric version of the Formula One race circuit -- albeit on the safety cars -- using charging technology from San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc.

Developers dream of wireless charging spots at traffic lights, taxi stands and parking spaces -- even in the street -- where cars can sip a charge on the go.

"Dynamic" wireless charging is already being publicly tested on two electric buses being charged by cable strips embedded in a 15-mile stretch of road between the train station and downtown Gumi, South Korea, a city of 341,000 people south of Seoul, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) announced in August.

To be sure, widespread wireless charging is far from around the corner. With retrofitting a passenger car with wireless charging carrying a $3,000 price tag, it's still three to six times more expensive than installing a conventional plug-in charger. And the issue of the best bandwidth to transmit on and other standards, as well as long-term implications of safety and health of prolonged exposure to the magnetic fields, still need a lot more study. Dynamic charging also must overcome the expense of tearing up roads to embed cables.

"There is real value to it, but we definitely see it having slow growth initially because of the initial price premium," said Lisa Jerram, senior research analyst with Navigant Research. "And it is not that critical, as we have plug-in chargers."

But dynamic wireless charging technology has some big advantages. For one, it lets a car manufacturer shrink the battery: "a trade-off with the battery size," Jerram said, "that is a great value proposition if you can get there."

The battery in the South Korean buses, for example, is only a third the size of the current battery on a passenger electric vehicle, KAIST said.

Regular EV batteries are big -- and expensive. Car manufacturers are struggling with how to keep cost and expense down to reach the high mileage per charge -- the "range" -- that consumers want. Poll after poll shows "range anxiety" -- fear of running out of juice in the middle of nowhere -- is the main reason car buyers keep their distance from plug-ins.

So there's a lot of research going into new battery chemistries, sensors and systems to solve that problem.

Analysts foresee battery prices sinking about 7 percent a year through 2020, when some experts see the electric car finally competing head to head on price in the market without subsidies. Tesla Motors Inc. founder Elon Musk said earlier this year he thinks his car company could develop an EV for the mass market in three or four years.

But will there be a breakthrough in the meantime that will make electric vehicles more appealing? Wireless-charge boosters are hoping their technology will be the game changer.

Convenience counts -- for a lot

Analysts say one should never underestimate the importance of convenience for car customers.

"The feedback has been very, very positive around the ease of use of the system ... as if people are becoming dependent or, I don't know, almost addicted to the technology," said Rebecca Hough, the CEO and co-founder of Richmond, Va.-based Evatran, which has launched the first commercially available EV wireless charging system in the United States. Hough was named one of Inc. Magazine's "30 Under 30" star entrepreneurs this year.

Evatran has partnered with Sears and Bosch to provide a wireless charging retrofit technology to the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. The company is testing the technology in about 30 locations with employees of Google, Duke Energy, Hertz Rent-a-Car, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and two national laboratories.

When the company needs to swap out a part to improve it based on user feedback, Hough said, people consistently tell her they underestimated how much they would miss the system the few weeks they didn't have it.

Or as Mike Rowand, director of technology development at Duke Energy, told Forbes Magazine in July, "When they took it back, I realized how much I liked it and said, 'Wait a minute, I've got to plug in now.' I didn't realize how much I liked it until they took it away. It's like plug-in vehicles themselves. The more you drive them, the more you appreciate them."

Wireless charging is based on decades-old technology that uses magnetic fields to transfer energy from a transmitting coil in the parking pad to a receiving coil mounted on the underside of the car, which converts this energy into electrical current to charge the battery.

On top of its manhole cover experiment, New York City-based HEVO is focusing on company vehicle fleets as its first market.

Steve Monks, HEVO's chief operations officer, said wireless charging for fleet vehicles makes financial sense for corporations.

Wireless charging, he said, solves issues of the safety hazard of long cords lying around, vandalism, damaged connectors from incorrect use and dead vehicles because drivers forgot to plug them in.

"These are immediate headaches they are having now, and for a fleet that is already operating now, they need something seamless that won't require a lot of time for their drivers to adopt easily," Monks said.

Alastair Hayfield, associate research director with IHS Automotive, agreed the wireless charging technology had a good market opportunity with fleet vehicles.

"I think there is a much stronger use case in this application than in passenger vehicles at the moment," he said.

"Think about it: Buses and trucks have a set route. Buses stop in particular places and pick up passengers, which is an ideal situation to take a charge," he added.

HEVO's technology also offers another perk: faster charging. HEVO's technology can charge a truck up to three times faster than the average 12 hours for plug-ins and at up to three times the distance, no matter the size.

Like Evatran's residential pilot test, HEVO sees fleets as an important place for getting feedback and to familiarize consumers with the wireless technology.

Both companies say their ultimate goal is to speed the adoption of electric vehicles, which they see as important to cutting dependence on oil and reducing emissions.

Your car just locked me out of my car

There's still a long way to go in the development of wireless charging on standardization and protections for health and safety.

Recognizing this gap, last year the Department of Energy offered $4 million in annual funding for three years for projects to help resolve some of these issues for stationary wireless charging, although DOE noted its interest in dynamic charging.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee has taken the lead on this project, and it has just finished the first phase, the results of which it will present to DOE this month for the green light on the second phase and tranche of funding, according to John Miller, a research scientist for ORNL's Power Electronics and Electric Machinery Research Group.

Evatran is a partner on the project, along with Duke Energy, Cisco Systems Inc. and Clemson University's International Center for Automotive Research. They are working with the Toyota Prius and Polaris Gem, a golf-cart-like electric vehicle. ORNL also has a project on dynamic wireless charging.

The ORNL team has been investigating and gathering data for all aspects of the technology, Miller said: charging at 7.7 and 10 kilowatts with an eye toward fast charging at 50 kW, different materials for converting that power for operation, physical exposure to magnetic fields, implications of misalignment on the pad, integration with residential electrical systems, and what bandwidth is ideal for energy transmission.

Bandwidth is particularly important, Miller said, because there are only four levels of bandwidth left that won't interfere with other wireless communication already in the car for remote starting and engine diagnostics, as well as other uses outside the vehicle.

"You don't want to be parking on a ramp somewhere and unlocking the doors next to you. Or worse case: It locks your car where you can't unlock it," he said. "That is why standards are so important."

ORNL's work is aimed at lowering the risk and improving understanding of how to safely incorporate wireless charging technology into the electric vehicles that may speed up car manufacturers' adoption of the technology.

IHS's Hayfield said the decision by original equipment manufacturers to incorporate it into production, as opposed to retrofits, is key to opening up the wireless-charging technology market.

For now, the manufacturers must still install both a plug-in charger and wireless charging system, Hayfield said, which will add weight to the car -- a no-no that could affect an EV's range or battery size.

And a lack of standardization also makes any sort of public network of wireless charging spots difficult for the moment. Volvo recently completed a test of wireless charging technology in Belgium and concluded that the technology works fine, but the lack of a common standard precludes it from entering the mass market for now.

Navigant's Jerram said the wireless charging technology would likely be a luxury feature for high-end customers in the near term, especially with the already higher price of electric cars.

The electric vehicle market, however, is quickly expanding, with almost 20 models available next year. Demand for convenience and wireless charging is really being driven by the consumers, as opposed to ways to cut costs or be more efficient from the companies, Hough said.

"With EVs, what you are seeing right now are manufacturers are coming out with cars with very similar performance," she said.

"What we are hearing from [manufacturers] is they are looking for technology that fundamentally differentiates the experience of EVs," Hough added. "Most ... are really being driven by the need to differentiate their vehicles so they will stand out."

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