All production cars today, be they electric, fossil fueled or hybrids, suffer a common glaring weakness. Every so often, you have to stop what you’re doing to replenish their energy source.
For cars and trucks that slurp gasoline or diesel, we find it quite normal to pump dangerously combustible liquids into them for 5 to 10 minutes at a time. With today’s electric vehicles, drivers must charge their vehicles at special kiosks or at home for periods ranging from one hour to overnight. In February of this year, a writer for The New York Times and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk got into a heated public dust-up over how complicated the electric vehicle charging process was for ordinary people.
But wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to do any of that standing around and waiting?
What if you never had to stop to refuel or plug in for a recharge? What if your car received all the energy it needed automatically? Sound impossible?
In actuality, several labs are working on different hands-off, inductive charging methods right now. Inductive is the opposite of conductive – it means that no parts of the charger or vehicle touch one another to transfer electricity. It’s already pretty common with consumer electronics. If you’ve ever used wireless charging to replenish a cellphone battery, well, it’s the same principle at work, albeit on a bigger scale.
Some plans call for allowing vehicles to power up by parking over a charging pad while not in use. For example, a driver could shop at a mall while her car charged itself in a specially outfitted parking lot.
GM took a swipe at the idea in the late 1990s with its Magne-Charge system. It used an inductive paddle to safely re-charge an EV’s battery pack, and could even do it in the rain! The standard became outmoded though when the California Air Resources Board chose a different design for its charging standard in 2001.
Throughout 2012, a company called Evatran was trialing its “Plugless Power” park-and-charge system with several big-name test subjects, including Google, Hertz, and the cities of Raleigh and Sacramento, to name a few.
You could, of course, make this idea even cooler if the car didn’t have to stop at all. The charging pads would be embedded in the road and would detect when an electric vehicle passed overhead. With the utmost speed and precision, the appropriate pad would impart just the right amount of current to the passing vehicle.
A few people have done this in some form already, and are working on making it better suited for the real world.
The Korean Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (KAIST) is perhaps the best well known in this arena. Building upon the inductive charging work of engineering genius Nikola Tesla and others, KAIST successfully developed an electric tram that gets its power from cables buried in the roadway. The tram cars receive power from a 12-cm gap between their underbody and an inductively charged strip in the road.
But the idea is to make it much bigger than just a shuttle service. Conceivably any properly outfitted car, truck or bus could use it.
“If we place these strips on about 10 percent of roadways in a city, we could power electric vehicles,” Cho Dong-ho, the manager of KAIST’s Online Electric Vehicle project told the Associated Press.
Don’t expect hands-off charging to happen on a large scale immediately, or even any time in the near future. Especially not in the United States, which tends to lag other developed countries in deploying advanced infrastructure. Still, it’s exciting to know how science is pushing the boundaries of what we believe to be possible in transportation.
Your turn: People have tried to make electric vehicles (EVs) practical for a long time. Will advanced charging technologies make any difference?