Charging pads let electric car owners cut the cord

Michael Martinez, and Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Electric-vehicle charging cords could soon go the way of the cassette tape, floppy disk and landline telephone.

Suppliers like Qualcomm Inc. and a handful of after-market companies offer wireless charging that requires no cords or physical contact. Some automakers are beginning to implement it on their fleets, although it will likely first be available mostly on high-end luxury makes. Mercedes-Benz, for example, will offer wireless charging on its S550e plug-in hybrid next year.

Inductive charging uses two coils of wire in two objects — in this case, a pad on the car connected to its battery and a separate pad on the ground — to create an electromagnetic field. When the objects come in close contact with one another, an electric current travels over the open space to create a charge. It’s the same way you wirelessly charge an electric toothbrush, video game controller or cellphone.

In the future, suppliers envision a world where wireless chargers would be built directly into roadways so the car would charge while you drive, eliminating range anxiety. The coils could be built into designated highway lanes, or at places where cars often idle, such as stoplights and on-street parking spots. If wireless charging is implemented in parking garages or lots, autonomous EVs could one day park themselves over the pads and, when fully charged, move another vehicle in to charge.

“It’s so easy, that’s the big selling feature for it. It’s so convenient,” said John Currie, manager of business development for Qualcomm Halo. “You don’t have to remember to plug or unplug or handle those cables anymore. The car can just charge automatically where you normally park.”

Currie recently demonstrated the Qualcomm system with a hybrid Honda Accord over a small, rectangular black mat on the ground. To start charging, Currie hit a button on the car’s touchscreen, and a circular graphic on the screen showed the car was properly aligned and was charging. A wall-mounted box connected to the ground mat completes the system.

Qualcomm Halo has wireless EV charging systems with 3.3 kilowatts and 7 kilowatts charging capacity and has demonstrated power transfers of up to 20 kilowatts, said Chris Borroni-Bird, vice president of strategic development from Qualcomm Technologies Inc.

Qualcomm has licensed its Halo wireless EV charging technology to three suppliers: Southfield-based Lear Corp., U.K.-based Ricardo and Switzerland-based BRUSA Elektronik AG. Ricardo, an engineering firm with offices in Van Buren Township, plans to hit the marketplace in about three years.

But some challenges remain. Drivers don’t always drive straight over the charging pad to perfectly align the two coils. SUVs and vehicles that sit higher above the ground have a tougher time picking up a charge. And charging stops if an object or animal ends up on the pad.

Qualcomm believes improvements will continue and could help reduce battery size.

“We see that over time, especially given the shift toward automated vehicles and automated parking… we see wireless charging could fit very well with those applications,” Borroni-Bird said.

Steve Pazol, general manager of wireless charging for Qualcomm, said the supplier this year is laying wireless charging components down in a track that’s a couple of hundred yards long as part of a Paris pilot program. The company has been refining the chargers for years with research in the U.S., London, Germany and Switzerland.

“You’re changing user behavior,” Pazol said. “You need to make it seamless.”

Other companies working on wireless charging include Momentum Dynamics, a Pennsylvania-based startup that first demonstrated it on a Chevrolet Volt in 2012. And Virginia-based Evatran Group Inc. makes and distributes a product it calls Plugless.

A 3.3 kilowatt-hour Plugless system is available for the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid electric, Nissan Leaf EV and Cadillac ELR plug-in hybrid electric. The company plans to roll out a 7.2-kilowatt hour system to support charging for the Tesla Model S and BMW i3 by the end of the year, said Rebecca Hough, CEO and founder of Evatran. Prices, excluding installation of the wall system control panel, range from around $1,300 to as high as $3,000 for a more advanced and faster charger.

Hough said hundreds of customers across North America have purchased wireless EV chargers from the company, though she declined to provide specific figures. Consumers buy the systems directly from Evatran, which partners with more than 100 installation partners, including independent mechanics and Nissan and Chevy dealers.

Jay T. Sandvick of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, bought a Plugless wireless EV charger for his wife, Cynthia, as a Christmas present last year. She owns a 2012 Volt.

“One of my hang-ups was either she or I were constantly forgetting to plug in the car when we got home,” he said. “It just added an extra step to driving the vehicle.”

Their experience with the system nudged the Sandvicks to buy a second used Volt earlier this year for Jay to drive. They also bought a second wireless charger for that car and with a renewable energy credit, saving them 30 percent off the cost of the unit and installation of each; the net investment was about $1,500 to $1,600 for both after federal charging station tax credits.

“Why the OEMs don’t offer this is mind-boggling,” Jay Sandvick said. “It didn’t seem like such a big deal until we had it. Now we can’t imagine charging any other way or why we would want to.”

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