Imagine that you own an electric vehicle. Now, imagine you’ve gone on a day-trip to the new local micro-brewery with all your friends because you’re cool like that and that’s what cool people do. When you come home, you park your car in your garage and put it to charge. You go upstairs to your Game-Room (because you’re cool, remember?) Suddenly you hear your midsection emit a tiny growl and you are flooded with an overwhelming desire for late night $2 tacos at the hip ‘authentic and organically sourced’ taco place (which, incidentally, is another cool thing you do with your cool friends). You run down to the garage clutching your stomach, feeling like death itself. You see your car, as you bound into the garage, looking all sleek and futuristic, purring slightly as if it knows what’s on your mind – you can almost taste the tacos now.
“You see your car, as you bound into the garage, looking all sleek and futuristic, purring slightly as if it knows what’s on your mind – you can almost taste the tacos now.”
Too bad. Your car isn’t charged yet.
Now you have to sit there and order Dominos on your phone like a bloody commoner. What’s that? The taco place has an app and does deliveries too? Ok FINE…GLADYS. Heartlessly tear down my unrealistic premise, why don’t you.
The point is – charging an electric vehicle takes way more time than a classic “fill-er-up”. An average 45-mile charge takes up to an hour and a half (according to the Tesla website). And although that may sound like me creating a problem where there isn’t one, really think about it. Did you or did you not pay extra for that phone that charges faster? Didn’t you pay extra to get a few more Mbps? Didn’t you finish a season of Game of Thrones and complain about how long they will take to release the next one? Think about all the business models that are all about getting a product faster – Amazon Prime, Starbucks Mobile Order, torrents (ahem). Like it or not, there’s a new consumer in town and She/He does not like waiting. And yeah, I put ‘She’ before ‘He’. Feel free to call customer complaints at 1-800-IDGAF.
“The point is – charging an electric vehicle takes way more time than a classic “fill-er-up”. An average 45-mile charge takes up to an hour and a half (according to the Tesla website).”
Now, go back to my premise (shut up, Gladys). Imagine if you could charge your car as you drove back home from your road trip. No, I don’t mean stopping at one of the supercharging stations along popular routes (like Tesla has implemented). I mean charging your car as you drive along a road. Wireless charging roads are not a distant dream anymore. They’ve arrived on to the technological stage and are currently being designed, tested, and implemented. Scientific American reports that the Israeli government is collaborating with a start-up company, ElectRoad, to install the first of its kind wireless charging system on a public bus route in Tel Aviv, that eliminates the need for plug-in recharging stations for electric buses (now) and cars (in the future). The trick is to harness the magic of inductive charging – something that has been around since Tesla (the smart guy not the smart car). Since he discovered that inductive charging could power light bulbs wirelessly, the process has been used to power a host of other stuff, from artificial hearts to smartphones. Now, according to very promising pilot projects, it can be used to charge vehicles. Let’s break it down.
The electric vehicles are charged from two mutually interacting electromagnetic fields. There’s a row of inverters installed along the side of the road. These inverters take electricity from underground city power lines and use that power to energize plates of copper embedded in the road. The vehicle or bus will be equipped with similar copper plates under the chassis. As the vehicle passes over the charged plates inside the road, the magnetic field emanating from the road’s plates create an electric field in the vehicle’s copper plates which then feed that energy to the car’s battery. Voila! Your vehicle is charged.
(If you are unsure of how this works, check out this link for an absolutely wonderful lecture on Electromagnetic Induction by Walter Lewin – a Dutch Astrophysicist, MIT professor, and one of the greatest science teachers ever – Lecture on EMI by Walter Lewin)
The biggest challenge that lies ahead for this technology is proving that the business case is solid. The cost per kilometer to charge per kilometer ratio is a metric that investors will be keeping a close eye on. However, Israel is not the only country that is testing wireless charging roads. South Korea also has some of these pilot projects up and running and the European Union has expressed interest too. With multiple testing arenas and multiple tech companies vying to be the first to conquer this sector, accelerated innovation (leading to heavy cost-reductions) is inevitable. Already, Qualcomm’s version of this technology (called ‘dynamic electric vehicle charging’..boy, that’s a mouthful) is able to wirelessly send up to 20 kilowatts of inductive charging power to a compatible electric vehicle traveling across it at highway speeds. By-product benefits such as an elimination of the need for larger onboard batteries will lead to lighter vehicles which, in turn, will lead to lower energy consumption by the vehicles themselves.
“With multiple testing arenas and multiple tech companies vying to be the first to conquer this sector, accelerated innovation (leading to heavy cost-reductions) is inevitable. Already, Qualcomm’s version of this technology is able to wirelessly send up to 20 kilowatts of inductive charging power to a compatible electric vehicle traveling across it at highway speeds.”
There are also a couple of other energy harvesting techniques using roads that are riding the coattails of the momentum generated by the wireless charging projects. One, in particular, is the Piezoelectric road. The Piezoelectric Effect is the ability of certain materials to generate an electric charge in response to applied mechanical stress (pushing and pulling on it). The word Piezoelectric is derived from the Greek piezein, which means to squeeze or press, and piezo, which is Greek for “push”. The idea is that the vibrations and stress that the road receives from passing vehicles is stored in the piezoelectric material embedded in the road and then converted to usable electric energy for the grid. The project was headed by Innowattech, a green energy company based in Ra’anana, Israel that specializes in researching and providing sustainable ways of producing energy from piezoelectricity. They reported that a 100-meter stretch is expected to produce at least 400 kilowatts of usable energy. That is pretty significant.
It is for certain that none of these technologies are anywhere near mass commercial deployment and that they have some more engineering and financial validation hoops to jump through. However, one would be a fool to dismiss them off the bat without a deeper study. It is fair to say that, at this point, they have (at the very least) tremendous scope for being one of the solutions towards future energy/power sustainability.
Besides, you have to admit, the idea of cruising down an electrified Interstate blasting some AC/DC (highway to hell?) is pretty …. cool.