When I was a kid, we would routinely make the trip from our home in New York to visit family in Philadelphia. The drive would take us past the belching refineries along I-95 in New Jersey where I held my breath and imagined drivers in other cars would also be holding their breath for as long as they could to avoid the sickening stench. I love the outdoors and beautiful architecture, so those offensive fossil fuel refineries were the antithesis of everything I wanted the world to be. Even as a young boy I wondered how I might change it.
It was a few decades later, when I was privileged to work with NASA as part of the design team for the International Space Station and future lunar and Mars missions that I began to realize a different vision for our future. Our team was working on ways to save electrical conductor weight on the space station and future Mars missions when the concept of inductive energy transfer began to resonate with the introduction of electric vehicles. Why use cables or wires at all when electrons can be transmitted wirelessly and more efficiently using a magnetic field? It’s a question Tesla, Ford, and General Motors drivers ought to be asking. Does it really make sense to plug a 4,000-pound car (or 40,000-pound truck!) into an outlet in the same way we plug in toasters and TVs?
President Joe Biden, during a recent visit to Michigan, detailed his plan to invest billions into electric vehicle production and rebates for car and truck buyers. That’s good news. The administration’s proposal for $15 billion to build 500,000 EV charging stations by 2030 is part of a worldwide movement, and it’s a movement that will culminate in cleaner air. But doing so depends on a cost-effective energy delivery system.
This global electrification movement can be accelerated by America’s technological leadership to achieve cost-effectiveness in EV infrastructure by removing the cord and automating charging.
The movement to electrify vehicles is now irreversible and stands to be among the largest public health and economic transformations in history. Over time, it will save countless lives by preventing serious diseases that are traceable to fossil fuel emissions. It will change the world’s transportation, logistics, and energy industries in fundamental ways. But it will be limited until we recognize that fueling an EV with electricity is very different than filling a gasoline tank.
The breakthrough in wireless charging is that fueling can be done automatically, and therefore, more frequently, more reliably, and without conscious effort. Electric fueling should be so carefree that it will be even easier than gasoline fueling is today, and the dispensing of energy as simple as electronic toll collection has become on our highways, bridges, and tunnels.
Inductive, or wireless, charging is based on an elegantly simple solid-state technology that can be used by any type of electric vehicle, at any power level, without wires or plugs. Beyond the convenience, it costs much less to install, operate, and maintain and so saves money for all users. More frequent automatic charging allows the charging infrastructure to extend driving range without adding more battery to the vehicle. At the same time, it also extends the lifetime of the battery by “grazing” for fuel rather than “guzzling.”
Drivers are predisposed to filling their gas tank, driving until the gauge reaches a low level that makes them anxious enough to return, only to repeat the process by filling the tank again. That full-empty-full gas station model is not good for batteries and cannot be the design for the next 100 years.
Imagine fleet vehicles not having to be taken out of service to recharge. Intelligent automated charging enables every type of vehicle operator to adopt the en route “grazing” model of partial recharging done opportunistically and in the background. For mass-transit buses and trucking fleets, this leads to enhanced reliability and efficiency and the capacity to dramatically reduce costs. For car owners, especially those without a home garage, it offers an enhanced consumer experience.
Wireless charging of electric vehicles is already happening, in communities like Wenatchee, Wash., and Chattanooga, Tenn., where fleets of EV buses have been relying upon wireless charging since 2018. These buses merely need to idle for a few minutes over a charging pad embedded in the roadway where the vehicle automatically recharges —receiving just enough new energy to continue operations without being range-limited. The bus never has to leave its route or head back to the garage to plug in, allowing greater efficiency for passengers and saving transit agencies millions of dollars in capital and operational costs.
Cities desperately want to move toward electric vehicles for public transportation, but limited battery range has hindered their growth. Wireless, high-power charging systems of the type we are producing in Chester County can solve that problem by providing unlimited range to fleets without regard to route length or temperature conditions.
Ask yourself this: Ten years from now, if you’re walking down Main Street in your city, you can either have filled that street full of 6-foot-tall plug-in chargers with big cables dangling off the curb. Or a political leader with vision will have installed those chargers underground and made them invisible. I can tell you what choice I would have made while driving down I-95 so many years ago.
It’s time to cut the cord.
Andy Daga is CEO of Momentum Dynamics in Malvern. He is a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Society of Automotive Engineers.