Navigant Research Blog

In Korea, Wireless Charging Takes the Bus

— August 29, 2013

Wireless charging is a technology that attracts more public attention than its actual use would seem to warrant.  This week saw breathless reports that the Droid 5 might include wireless charging capability and GM plans to put a wireless charging mat into its 2014 models for mobile devices.  In the electric vehicle (EV) market, Bosch introduced the first aftermarket wireless charger for EVs in the United States during July, the Plugless charging system.

In some ways, EV wireless charging seems superfluous.  We already have good charging technology: the plug and cord.  It works, it’s safe, it’s easy to use, and it’s affordable.  It seems counterintuitive to replace that with more expensive technology when you’ve got a market already limited by high prices for the cars themselves – unless that extra cost gives you some significantly higher utility.  As we have discussed earlier, developers argue that wireless charging can be a market enabler for EVs – by upending the range versus charging time dilemma.  EVs would be charged frequently, throughout the day, allowing OEMs to downsize the battery without sacrificing performance.  Once the initial investment in wireless capability has been made, adding new charge pads would be cheaper than adding more charging boxes.  But, as noted in the Navigant Research report Wireless Charging Systems for Electric Vehicles, it will likely take many years for the plug-in EV (PEV) market to make this shift.

A new demonstration project in Korea presents another angle in the wireless charging argument.  The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) is running two electric buses equipped for wireless charging … while operating.  KAIST engineers built a 7.5-mile charging mat on a 15-mile transit route at a cost of $4 million.  The two buses reportedly have batteries that are just one-third the size of a regular electric car battery.

In this case, the argument is that wireless charging can extend the effective range of battery buses while lowering the cost of the buses, since they use smaller batteries.  Range and cost are serious limitations for battery buses, more so than in the passenger car market.  As forecast in Navigant Research’s report, Electric Drive Buses, battery buses will constitute well under 1% of transit bus sales for the next several years, with sales in the thousands from 2014 on.  Key reasons for this are the higher price, lower passenger capacity, and reduced range, all of which limit the utility of battery buses for transit operators.

Annual Battery Electric Bus Sales by Region, World Markets: 2012-2018 Lisa's blog C7.5

(Source: Navigant Research)

In effect, the KAIST wireless system would be like having a light rail or trolley line, only without the overhead lines that many consider an eyesore.  The drawback is that the wireless charging equipped bus is tied to an exact route.  The transit operator loses the flexibility that a battery bus can provide, compared to a trolley or light rail system.  For the near term, the best application may be on well-established transit routes that are not likely to shift over time – for example, routes in urban centers where cities want to reduce emissions and noise, such as downtown malls.  The technology may eventually be incorporated in the planning process for new roadways, allowing widespread deployment of the wireless charging that would give transit operators more flexibility in designing routes.  But this seems a long way off.  In the meantime, KAIST says it will add 10 more buses to the route in 2015, if this first trial is a success.


In London, EV Charging Loses the Wires

— December 14, 2012

Sometime in the next few weeks the most significant trial to date of wireless EV charging will begin in London.  Mobile software and chipmaker Qualcomm, which acquired New Zealand-based HaloIPT, a developer of wireless EV charging technology, in November, 2011, will be piloting wireless-enabled vehicles from Renault and racecar designer Delta Motorsport (maker of the E4 coupe EV) in various parts of the British capital.  I interviewed Qualcomm’s London-based senior director for strategic marketing, Joe Barrett, for Pike Research’s just-published research brief, “Wireless Charging Systems for Electric Vehicles.”

Building on its long experience in microchips and software for mobile devices, Qualcomm has developed a customized architecture for its wireless EV charging system based on coils, made of a ferrite material that has very low resistance to magnetic fields, arranged in a double-D shape and embedded in a rectangular charging pad.  This technology, Barrett claims, allows for higher degrees of misalignment between transmitter and receiver than other systems under development.

Qualcomm is also pushing a more ambitious business case for the technology.  The standard line of companies developing wireless EV charging is that it will spread because it’s more convenient: drivers would rather simply pull the car over a charging pad, and have it connect automatically, than have to get out and plug in a charge cord.  That makes sense, as far it goes – many people in this fledgling sector compare it to garage door openers, a simple convenience that fuels a sizable global market – Barrett offers a rationale for the technology that goes beyond convenience alone.

“The growth of EVs has been slow because of two things,” Barrett told me.  “No. 1 is always range anxiety.  But the real reason is cost: an EV is a lot more expensive than a comparable conventional vehicle, by $15,000 to $20,000. That’s a barrier. Wireless charging has the potential to address that.”

Briefly, Barrett’s argument is that EV charging must shift from once a day, usually overnight, to many brief top-offs throughout the day.  That will allow automakers to install smaller, and thus cheaper, batteries.  The battery accounts for most of the price premium for an EV over a conventional car.  Seeding big cities, like London, with many wireless EV charging stations (which can be installed more easily and less expensively than conventional, wired charging facilities) would enable that shift.

Seen in this way, wireless EV charging is no longer simply a timesaving device; it’s a potential enabler for the entire EV market.  That’s an intriguing notion, if still some years away.  New forms of infrastructure can spread very rapidly, given sufficient demand – think of how fast WiFi hotspots sprang up – and big cities have a definite interest in enabling new forms of clean transportation, particular in Europe.  Assuming the London trial is successful, Qualcomm plans to have systems available, most likely as a dealer option, by 2015 at the latest.


Why Wireless Charging Could Change the Electric Vehicle Market

— August 9, 2012

A number of factors may hinder the growth of the market for all-electric vehicles.  Surveys consistently show that people are interested in the concept of an electric vehicle, but do not want to pay a high cost premium and are concerned about the range and about getting stranded by a flat battery, as it were.  OEMs and government agencies are working to address these concerns by subsidizing advanced battery development work, encouraging the installation of new charging points, and offering financial (tax rebates) and convenience (free parking, HOV lane access) incentives.  The spread of wireless charging options could help extend the customer base for EVs, as well.

While plugging in a long cable might not be a huge inconvenience when parked at home overnight, the idea of leaving an expensive cable out in the street has understandably caused some people to express concern.  Theft and mischief are potential issues if the number of cars grows and seeing an EV recharging becomes commonplace.

All the major vehicle manufacturers have started work on wireless charging technology, although it’s seen as a practical reality for the future rather than a critical piece of the picture that’s needed now while the market is in its infancy.  BMW announced a partnership with Siemens in 2011.  Delphi has been working with WiTricity for about 2 years, and Qualcomm purchased HaloIPT in 2011.  In July 2012, Qualcomm updated progress with its plans for testing in London by announcing that Renault and Delta Motorsports had both agreed to participate.

The technology to charge batteries via induction loops and/or magnetic resonance has been around for years.  What’s needed now is some agreement and provisional standards for the hardware.  The last thing anyone needs is a unique charging system in every electric vehicle.  A few years ago each manufacturer had its own view on what the plug should look like, but now standards are emerging that means some charging stations can be used by different vehicle models.  Japan and the United States seem to have gotten their act together but Europe is still a work in progress.

In the short term, the wireless charging developers need to get together to hammer out some agreements about the basic technology so that everyone can focus on making it efficient, safe, and affordable.  Cooperation today will pay off for all in the future.  And wireless power also is relevant for many other devices in consumer electronics and industrial applications, as covered in our recent report, Wireless Power.

But the biggest payoff in the future will be the opportunity that wireless charging brings to the EV market.  The initial challenge is to develop a working system for static charging.  But Qualcomm in particular has a vision for the future of dynamic charging, in which batteries are topped up while the vehicle is moving or while waiting at traffic lights, as well as when parked.  Momentum Dynamics has developed a new business case for commercial fleets of electric vehicles based on its wireless charging technology.

This is where things get exciting.  If batteries can constantly be topped up, then the quantity of on-board energy storage can be reduced, making possible a big reduction in the initial purchase price of the vehicle as well as eliminating range anxiety.  Managing the incremental payment process for multiple short charging periods is ideally suited to a company such as Qualcomm, with its background in wireless communications.  And that also explains why Qualcomm is taking a leadership role in this aspect of the electric vehicle industry.


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