Last week in Paris, the US chipmaking company Qualcomm unveiled technology far removed from its traditional heartland of smartphone processing and computers — a wireless charger for an electric car.
On a 100m test track, the company showed that two Renault Kangoo vans were able to take charge directly from cables under the road while driving along. The demonstration marks a breakthrough for a technology that has the potential to change the economics of electric vehicles.
Sales are rising, as carmakers push newer models that can drive further on a single battery. But lack of charging infrastructure, along with price and battery range, remains an important obstacle to mass adoption.
Analysts expect sales of battery-driven vehicles to take off once the price of ownership draws level with a traditional internal combustion engine car, possibly within five to 10 years.
As a result, the industry is turning its attention to a time when there will be too many electric cars on the road for conventional top-up chargers.
“At some point, there will be a big shift and mass adoption and we must think about new things,” says Edouard Fischer, a director at Sanef, the company that operates France’s toll motorways. “We must prepare for what will happen in 10-15 years.”
After installing charging points at every 80km along its 2,000km toll road network, Sanef has in the past year witnessed a 250 per cent increase in the number of electric cars driving on them, Mr Fischer told the FT’s Future of the Car Summit.
But there will come a time when fixed point charging can no longer cope with the number of electric vehicles on the road. With under-road charging, a system of cables laid under motorway lanes could put just enough charge into a car to keep its battery from being run down during the journey.
The car would drive off the motorway with the same amount of charge as when it joined the road, possibly many hundreds of kilometres earlier. This has the potential to transform the range of electric vehicles, since they currently must stop to top up before they run out, thus lengthening journey times for any long distance trip.
Developments are also moving “very, very fast” in the field, says Gilles Normand, head of electric cars at Renault. BMW and Daimler, the owner of Mercedes, are already developing induction pads for their plug-in hybrid cars that allow them to charge without the use of a cable. Nissan demonstrated its first prototype system in 2010. The car is parked over the induction pad and the energy transfers wirelessly into vehicle.
Mr Normand notes that three years ago Renault’s induction pad needed to be just half a centimetre from the road to connect. Today, that gap is 4cm, while the equipment needed weighs a fraction of what was required three years earlier.
But while the technology may work well in a garage, getting the same system to operate flawlessly and safely at speed on a motorway will prove more difficult.
Sensors under the road must be able to detect a vehicle and deliver charge before it moves on, requiring nanosecond response times. Qualcomm says its new system can charge at highway speeds, with two cars charging on the same stretch of road.
There are other logistical hurdles before it can move from the test track to the highway. One lane would have to be reserved for these vehicles with on-the-road charging facilities, or the sensors would have to be able to detect when a non-chargeable car was travelling on the road.
The cars would also pay for the electricity as they drive, requiring instant payment systems to be installed in vehicles.
The costs of tearing up motorway lanes in order to install cables and sensors would be astronomical — in the tens of billions of euros even if such a system were rolled out only in Europe.
Some think the hurdles and costs mean the technology is unlikely to be adopted any time soon. Erik Fairbairn, founder of electric charging company POD Point, says the vision of under-road charging is “wide of the mark”.
Charging behaviour will change, he predicts. Chargers will be more commonly installed in homes and workplaces, rather than motorists being dependent on “an electric version of the petrol pump”, topping up when needed.
Because most electric cars will be fully charged at home, Mr Fairbairn says only 3 per cent of motorists on average will need to top up during a particular journey. In this case, the vast majority of journeys made in electric vehicles will be completed without any need to recharge along the way.
“If your car had a full tank of petrol every morning, how often do you go beyond that? For most of us, it’s an extreme case,” he says.