Wireless electric vehicle charging carries a whiff of the future, akin to flying cars. But HEVO, a Brooklyn-based startup, aims to make it part of the present by emerging from obscurity with a commercially ready wireless charger this year.
The company has designed a ground-mounted pad that beams electricity up to a car-mounted receiver to wirelessly charge it. Now, the product is about to enter low-volume production at the Flex contract manufacturing facility in Austin, Texas, which will serve the 200 unit orders HEVO received in the first quarter.
HEVO closed a $5.5 million Series A-1 in late April and has another round in the works. With that funding and just 10 employees, the company is going up against much larger and better-funded rivals for mastery of an untapped market that could revolutionize the way people charge electric cars.
"It’s really about persistence and resilience," founder and CEO Jeremy McCool said in a recent interview. "We’re going to continue to pursue our mission and our vision, even with the fact that there are other people and other companies that have more money than us."
HEVO got to this point after eight and a half years of hustling.
McCool, a former Army captain, first grappled with distributed energy on deployment to Iraq, where he helped set up local power generation in a Baghdad neighborhood suffering from energy insecurity. Back home, he launched the startup with a $50,000 grant from Veterans Affairs, amplified by small investments from friends and family and other government grants. The team graduated out of NYU's clean energy incubator, ACRE, to an office in Brooklyn that McCool literally lived out of for several years while product development was underway.
HEVO has conducted pilots on three continents with major automakers, utilities and EV charging companies. Now the product is ready to ship — just waiting on final UL certification that McCool said was hours away from completion when the safety testing facility shut down for coronavirus isolation in March. (UL declined to comment on pending customer work.)
That certification is now expected to wrap up by the end of June if not sooner, McCool said.
But HEVO won't be the first to claim that credential, because this week UL granted the first certification under a new wireless vehicle charger standard to Lumen Group for its Lumen Freedom product. The competition in this new market is heating up.
"It’s good that there’s another company out there trying to commercialize wireless charging," McCool said.
Who needs wireless charging?
The electric vehicle industry is scrambling to build out enough chargers to handle the expected wave of EV adoption. Wireless charging holds many potential advantages over the currently available wired systems.
Wired charging uses a smattering of different plugs, but automakers have already agreed to a universal wireless charging standard, eliminating interoperability challenges. Nobody can yank out the charging cable when a car is left to fill up at a wireless public station. Drivers don't even need to get out of the car to charge, which is handy in a rainstorm.
The spread of COVID-19 only amplifies the benefit of touchless charging: “Right now, who the heck wants to touch anything?” McCool asked.
From an urban-planning standpoint, wireless charging would allow a more seamless installation of charging equipment into existing paved surfaces, rather than sticking charging cables around town. And the technology could theoretically go into roadways to top up drivers on the go rather than making them park and wait.
Besides the hands-free convenience, the ruggedness of wireless chargers has material implications for the durability of charging infrastructure investments, said Andrew Johnston, a market advocate on consulting firm Guidehouse's mobility solutions team.
"This may sound silly, but you’d be surprised at how many people in public [crash] into chargers,” Johnston said. “When it's a pad, you can drive over it a million times — it's designed to be driven on.”
Magic in his mom’s garage
McCool is riding out the quarantine at his mom's house in New Mexico. But he was able to demonstrate HEVO's product for Greentech Media over Zoom, having installed the charging pad on the floor of the garage.
He approached in a Nissan Leaf outfitted with a charging pad on its underbelly, and HEVO’s app directed him where to park so that the devices perfectly lined up. Once he switched the car off and started charging, the floor system sent electricity to the vehicle's receiver via electromagnetic resonance — similar to the induction that fuels wireless phone charging, but capable of crossing greater distances. HEVO's app tracked how much power was beaming up and what it cost.
HEVO's floor pad is built and tested to withstand the elements. (Photo credit: Jeremy McCool)
HEVO's product includes a tower that draws power from the home and incorporates a utility-grade meter and optional Level 2 charger. The system transmits between the pads on a frequency chosen by an international standard as the universal band for this particular use.
The technology withstood a barrage of quality tests for flame, chemical and environmental safety, McCool said. Technicians doused it with a fire hose at close range for 10 minutes to vet its impermeability. And for anyone worried about a pet running across it during a charging session, it comes with "foreign object detection" that shuts it off if anything gets too close (though McCool noted that third-party safety tests concluded it's perfectly safe for humans and animals to be near the charger during a session).
HEVO is hoping wireless receivers come standard in new cars within the next three to five years. Until then, drivers will need to buy the device as an after-market add-on; HEVO's should cost around $500 for parts and labor. The product is designed to be installed with just eight bolts, affixed to openings that already exist in the undercarriage of a given car model.
“The CTO and I are gearheads,” McCool explained. “We understand that you don't want to start drilling and poking around.”
Having the receiver only gets you so far; the floor mount and tower cost an additional $2,500. McCool envisions a world where energy companies or utilities cover that cost for the driver, much like a Wi-Fi company equips its customers with routers and modems for a small monthly fee.
The HEVO units operate with an efficiency of around 91 percent, equivalent to conventional charging, McCool said. The introductory product delivers 8 kilowatts maximum charge, 20 to 24 miles of charge per hour. That makes it comparable to Level 2 charging, but forthcoming iterations will accelerate that speed, he added.
HEVO is not alone in chasing the wireless-charging dream. Although it remains a niche relative to the mainstream charging industry, a number of other companies see big promise.
But Qualcomm didn't stick with it: In 2019, the company sold its wireless charging IP to Massachusetts startup WiTricity, which had pivoted to vehicles after years working on wireless phone charging. WiTricity had raised $68 million in funding, according to a 2018 Fast Company article. WiTricity licenses its technology to existing manufacturers; in that sense, it's not a direct competitor with HEVO, which wants to keep its intellectual property in-house and supply finished goods to carmakers.
Philadelphia-based Momentum Dynamics says it designs and manufactures its wireless chargers in the U.S. But that startup, which recently received an unspecified investment from Volvo's venture capital arm, focuses on higher-powered vehicles like buses. A grant-funded pilot with Washington state's Link Transit led to a follow-on five-year contract in January.
Though widespread adoption of wireless charging is still several years away, that's not a long time for infrastructure planning. Right now, billions of dollars of charging investments are on the table around the world, Guidehouse's Johnston noted. "I wonder at what point...cities, utilities and large corporate fleets [will] look closer at the benefits of wireless charging — [including] capital and O&M cost savings, and consistent performance compared to DC charging."
Further down the road, either before or after the arrival of flying cars, wireless charging will prove crucial to autonomous vehicles, for a simple but little-discussed reason, McCool said. “Is a car really autonomous if somebody has to plug it in?”