Electric cars of the future will be charged by our roads

It’s clearer than ever: electric cars are the future. At this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show we saw brand new, desirable EVs from Audi and Porsche, and other viable ones from smaller companies such as Tesla and Thunder Power. If the Motor Show was anything to go by, the electric vehicle market is going to be an exciting and innovative place to be.

However, amidst the buzz around the Audi, Porsche and Thunder Power stands, one word cut through the optimism: range.

Electric cars give us freedom and zero emissions from the exhaust pipe, but their very power source – the battery – is also their biggest weakness.

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Powered by lithium-ion batteries – just like most laptops, phones and cameras – electric cars have a limited range compared to conventional ones, and can’t drive for long without needing a charge. With lithium-ion battery development a slow and incremental process, and charging stations still few and far between, range is a crucial issue for the uptake of electric vehicles – and it’s not disappearing anytime soon.

However, Qualcomm thinks it has a solution. Rather than increasing battery size, Qualcomm believes we should shrink it.

The battery dilemma

While a battery gives an EV its best features, it also reinforces one of its biggest drawbacks. “It’s heavy and slow to charge, affecting vehicle dynamics. The charging act itself is so repetitive – occurring once, twice or three times a day – that it’s actually causing an impediment to the uptake of vehicles,” Anthony Thomson, vice president of business development and marketing for Qualcomm Halo, told Alphr. “So putting a bigger battery in, making it more expensive, heavier and slower to charge, seems a little bit daft.”williams_battery

Instead, Thomson sees a future with charging taking place in small but frequent bursts, and at commonly used locations throughout the day. If charging points were available at places such as supermarkets, shops and the workplace, users could charge their car without ever needing to go out of their way – or suffer from dreaded range anxiety. What’s more, the car they’d be driving wouldn’t need a large, cumbersome battery with all the drawbacks that brings.  

Cars will pick up power while on the move

“It gives us the prospect of having a vehicle with a very small battery that has, in effect, an unlimited range,” added Thomson.

However, that’s only the first step. In the future, cars may be able to pick up power while on the move, in a way similar to trams – or even Scalextric sets. As well as giving electric cars an almost infinite range, this would make the battery nothing more than a safety buffer – not the flawed power source it currently represents.

How will they do it?

To charge on the move, Qualcomm has had to adapt Qualcomm Halo, its wireless charging technology. Already deployed on the Formula E BMW i8 Safety Car, Halo technology allows charging without wires – at a rate of 7.2kW. That’s enough to charge the BMW in less than an hour.

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However, the BMW i8’s technology only works when the car is stationary, and there are many challenges involved in adapting the technology for moving vehicles.

So far, Qualcomm divides charging while moving into two distinct categories. While semi-dynamic refers to slower-moving areas such as taxi lanes, dynamic mode is more about charging while at full speed.

“We have an automatic guided vehicle going around the factory floor, putting power directly into motors. Most of those vehicles are travelling at a walking pace, so the challenge is to scale this to motorway speeds, make it cheap enough so that it’s not insanely expensive to do, and effectively roll it out on motorways and interstates and that sort of thing,” says Thomson. “We’re working hard on that.”

Preparing for the future

The technology is already being tested in large government-funded programmes, each designed to tackle a new challenge involved in electrifying our roads. First, an EU-funded project called FABRIC is working to ramp up wireless charging from walking to motorway speeds.

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“It’s a 100m track, which we’ll use to start doing a lot of learning about how it works in the field, and what the challenges are for deployment,” explains Thomson. At the same time, another project from TRL and Highways England will look into challenges associated with installing the technology on our roads.

So when can we expect to see wirelessly charging roads? Not for a while yet. “For us, it’s a 15-20 year plan before we would see it properly deployed,” says Thomson – but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t see the technology in very small deployments.

It’s a 15-20 year plan before we would see it properly deployed

“We’re really excited to see it in the Formula E,” says Thomson. “What would be tantalising is that, with wireless charging, you could have a race on it once a year and then vehicles in the city could use it for the rest of the time.”

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