Wireless charging could be a game-changer for electric vehicles -- and a crucial step in the shift to mass EV adoption.
Mercedes-Benz is currently poised to be the first automaker to offer wireless charging for a production vehicle. In June, the German automaker announced the new feature would be coming to market in 2018 with the S550e plug-in hybrid (PHEV) luxury sedan. Earlier this month, it was revealed that Mercedes would use a version of Qualcomm Halo’s technology, manufactured by an unnamed Tier 1 power electronics supplier.
Qualcomm and Mercedes -- through subsidiary Qualcomm Technologies and parent company Daimler AG, respectively -- already work together in a strategic partnership announced last spring to pioneer wireless charging and other connected-car technologies. Qualcomm acquired HaloIPT in 2011, and has been developing and deploying wireless electric-vehicle charging (WEVC) systems for the Formula E electric-vehicle racing series since 2014. Now, having been used on racetracks around the world, the technology is nearly ready to go mainstream.
Qualcomm Halo wireless inductive charging systems have already been successfully integrated and tested on a number of different consumer vehicle platforms, including Renault Fluence, Nissan Leaf, BMW i3, BMW i8 and the Honda Accord, Anthony Thomson, vice president of business development and marketing at Qualcomm, wrote in an email.
“The number of development contracts and requests for quotation from automotive OEMs is rapidly increasing, and it is expected that a number of production orders will be placed soon,” he said. “We will start to see further WEVC systems on production vehicles from other OEMs in the next few years.”
“One barrier to mass uptake of EVs/PHEVs is the need to constantly plug in to recharge,” Thomson added. “Most automotive OEMs are investigating WEVC technology as a convenient and easy method to recharge the EVs/PHEVs without the constant need to plug in; additional benefits include potential reduction in battery size by giving drivers the option to ‘charge little and charge often.’”
Qualcomm envisions a future where Halo technology is embedded into roadways, offering effectively limitless EV range. Wireless charging is also an important step in making vehicles truly autonomous, because they will be able to both drive and fuel on their own. But to date, wireless technology has had limited commercial availability, being offered by only a handful of aftermarket companies.
Evatran, for instance, is currently taking reservations for a WEVC system called Plugless that's designed specifically for the Tesla Model S. The $2,400 system provides roughly 20 miles of driving range per hour. Soon, Evatran plans to offer a charging system for the Chevrolet Volt as well. And by the end of next year, the company claims it will offer systems compatible with 80 percent of EVs on the road in North America. In August, the initial Tesla Model S system was believed to be just "weeks" away from release.
So far, Mercedes is the only automaker to confirm it will offer wireless charging directly on a production vehicle. Last year, Tesla previewed the "solid metal snake," the prototype of an autonomous (and somewhat creepy) charging system. But Tesla has yet to introduce a wireless charging feature -- leaving that to Evatran and others for now. Once wireless charging becomes widely available, automakers believe it will expand the EV market beyond early adopters.
“We already have a lot of very good electric vehicles on the road today, and there will be a lot more over the next year or two or three -- a lot more," said William Craven, senior manager of regulatory affairs at Mercedes-Benz USA. "So we’re now going into a market phase where the [vehicles] are there, but is customer demand going to be there? And if it isn’t, how are we going to increase that demand? How can we help customers embrace this type of technology? Inductive charging is one of those ways to increase that demand.”
To add range, owners of a S550e equipped with wireless charging will simply have to park atop a special pad and charging will begin, no plugs or cables necessary. Qualcomm Halo WEVC technology uses resonant magnetic induction to transfer energy between the ground-based pad and a charging pad on the EV. Pricing has yet to be released, but it is unlikely to be much of a concern given the S550e’s $96,600 base price.
Price could become a concern as wireless technology makes it way to lower-cost vehicle models, however. Also, the 3.6-kilowatt Qualcomm system is only designed to top up the S550e’s 8-kilowatt-hour plug-in hybrid battery. The system would need more than triple the charging power to fill up a 60-kilowatt-hour pure-EV battery, like that in the Chevy Bolt, in a reasonable amount of time.
Standards represent another speed bump. A consortium of technology developers and auto manufacturers are currently working with SAE International to produce industry-wide inductive charging standards. In May, SAE approved guidelines for power transfer between infrastructure and plug-in vehicles -- a major milestone for WEVC technology. Next, SAE will test prototypes based on the guidelines before they can be finalized.
Since the automotive industry is coalescing around a single set of standards -- rather than battling over competing technologies, which was the case with wireless cell phone charging -- Mercedes decided to commit to commercializing WEVC technology. Still, the feature won't be available until 2018.
“We can go out and offer product without SAE standardization guidelines or a final standard; however, we take on a lot of risk and liability and a chance of causing confusion out there in the marketplace as to what vehicle can be charged by what device,” said Craven.
“This is not uncommon for this to occur…but it’s not the best way to roll out [new technology],” he added. “If you can have a unified industry, like we do on EV inductive charging, it makes things a lot simpler and allows companies to come out with product using the guidelines.”
The only concern right now is that SAE testing will cause the standard to change, beyond just a few tweaks. SAE is also brokering talks in North America, Europe and Asia to set a global WEVC standard, which isn’t required, but would enable a much faster technology rollout. Inconsistent standards around the world add cost, because products have limited volume. Also, quality is typically better when products are the same globally. According to Craven, a global standard “would be huge,” providing a major boon for the burgeoning industry.