By 2025, more than 37 million electric vehicles (EVs) will be on the road worldwide, Navigant Research predicts. With the announcement from the UK that sales of petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2040, it could be that we will see this figure rise as people start buying EVs ahead of that date so they aren’t left with an unsellable asset.

The interesting aspect is that this shift to EV’s is happening not only because EVs are becoming more economically viable, but, as in the UK and France, because the health concerns of operating petrol and diesel driven vehicles can no longer be ignored.

To help alleviate any concerns of operating an EV, extending their range is critical. After all, most consumers and fleet owners don’t want to constantly worry about running out of power, so for them the easiest way to avoid that drawback is to stick with conventional vehicles in the short term.

Our work in department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Auckland is all about removing the plug-in and range anxieties associated with owning an EV.

While advances in battery technology will help with this concern and the sales barrier it creates, less obvious is the work we are doing on another aspect that’s equally important for making EVs mainstream: wireless charging. Instead of plugging in their vehicles, drivers can simply park as usual, but over a coil placed on the ground or buried in it, and the charging process happens automatically.

Wireless charging isn’t a solution in search of a problem. Just the opposite: Cutting the cord eliminates multiple problems, starting with the obvious one of forgetting to plug in.

For example, it’s easy for parents juggling groceries and a toddler to forget to plug in when they arrive at home — an oversight they don’t realise until it’s time to leave for day care and work. For fleet owners, the forgetfulness problem scales up, such as lost productivity when employees wind up stranded on the side of the road. And for consumers and fleet owners alike, wireless also eliminates the expensive problem of connectors damaged by debris and weather infiltration, and the need to plug in outside in all weather conditions.

Here’s another example: Suppose you pull into your garage and think, “I’m going back out in a half hour, so no point in bothering to plug in because that won’t give me much of a charge.” But then there’s a change of plans, and you wind up spending the evening at home. The next morning, your battery is as low as it was when you got home, and you’re kicking yourself for not just plugging in.

Wireless charging eliminates that problem and the reasons for it.

Other benefits are less obvious. Making charging easily available and simple to use (without having to do anything other than park normally) means that people will take advantage of it more often. Without this, many consumers will rely on plugging in at home. In developed countries, electric utilities look at consumption history to assume that each household will use a certain amount of power—about 2 kW, on average—and they build their infrastructure accordingly.

Now fast forward to, say, 2025, when EVs are more common. Suddenly there are many households with one or two EVs consuming 10 kW or more at night. To accommodate that demand, utilities would have to upgrade their neighbourhood transformers and other infrastructure — something that takes a lot of money and lead time to implement.

Wireless charging can significantly reduce those upgrades by spreading demand over a larger amount of geography and time. Today, vehicles are charged at home or, in the case of fleets, at the owner’s place of business. Tomorrow, they’ll be charged in a variety of additional places, including at work, at the store, on the street and in places of interest (such as at the beach and parks which are often weekend locations, which, if some distance away raises natural concerns over the range of the EV).

The provision of Wireless Electric Vehicle Charging (WEVC) points at these locations, which are as easy to use as parking your car, may increase employee/customer loyalty, attract new customers, and encourage wider adoption of wirelessly charged vehicles in larger population centres, thus reducing air pollution. Ideally, vehicles can be charged whenever and wherever they are parked.

Many, if not all, of the automotive manufacturers have spent the past several years working with their suppliers evaluating, developing and refining wireless charging technologies. These WEVC systems have been successfully integrated and tested on a number of different vehicle platforms: Renault Fluence; Nissan Leaf; BMWi3; BMWi8 and Honda Accord.

Moreover, the technology has been used and tested in the harsh environment of motorsports over the past three years. Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. was an official technology and founding partner of FIA Formula E Championship and integrated 7.4 kW charging systems into the official FIA Formula E safety cars. Enabling these key support vehicles to be charged wirelessly ensured they remain fully charged at all time, ready to be rapidly deployed in case of an emergency.

By late 2018 or early 2019, expect to see WEVC emerge as an option: initially on luxury vehicles, as is the case with just about every new technology, and then steadily downmarket. Some fleet owners could be early adopters even though they don’t buy premium vehicles – for example, taxi companies were among the first and biggest buyers of hybrids.

Fleet adoption creates a snowball effect: The more taxis, rental cars and other fleet vehicles that have it, the greater the volume of wireless charging equipment and infrastructure. Those volumes drive down the cost, enabling it to be added to an even wider range of vehicles, including entry-level models, and used in a wider range of markets, such as developing countries.

Indeed, wireless charging could be a particularly good fit for countries with limited and/or low-capacity electrical infrastructure by helping customers to be easily connected to the grid more often and thereby helping to spread the charging demand over a wider time frame and geography. For example, solar and wind could power wireless charging stations because vehicles would use them only for short periods to top up rather than for hours or overnight.

That’s one more reason why wireless charging is a matter of when rather than if or where.

A more detailed version of this article appeared in EV World and can be viewed here.

Professor Grant Anthony Covic is from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Auckland. He has been researching in the field of wireless power transfer for more than...

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