Charging an electric vehicle without cords has seemed like an afterthought to making better batteries or finding ways to charge cars faster. But some automakers are starting to embrace the technology in an attempt to make charging more convenient. Now, Mercedes-Benz wants to be first to sell cars with the feature.
Daimler, the German auto giant that builds Mercedes, recently said that it would offer a wireless charging option in one of its hybrid vehicles starting in 2017. Drivers will be able to stop their cars over a charging pad, which will start refilling the car’s battery automatically, without cords or physical contact.
If the company follows through on its plans, the 2018 Mercedes S550e hybrid will have the first known wireless charging system installed at the factory, and it will mark an early step toward spreading the technology to electric vehicles.
Wireless charging has been disappointing for years, overshadowed by the lower costs and faster charging times of electrical connectors. One of the earliest standards for charging electric vehicles without cables, Magne Charge, was scuttled in 2001 when California regulators ruled in favor of the J1772 standard, which is still widely used in charging stations.
Inside the new wireless charging system is technology from Qualcomm. The wireless chipmaker's Halo technology uses resonant magnetic induction, which transmits power between copper coils resonating at the same electromagnetic frequency. The companies said that the system will deliver 3.6 kilowatts.
Other industries, like consumer electronics and smartphones, have slowly gravitated toward wireless charging, though it still competes with fast charging cables. In 2015, Samsung’s Galaxy S6 smartphones were released with two different types of inductive charging, and Apple said that its smart watch would also support it.
Wireless charging faces many of the same stumbling blocks it did with smartphones. Using cables is typically faster and more efficient, and standards ensure that people can charge vehicles at public charging stations or with adapters plugged into wall outlets.
But that has been slowly changing. Toyota and Honda have both licensed technology for recharging hybrid vehicles from Witricity, a wireless charging start-up and a former research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The company also plans to build 11-kilowatt systems with auto supplier Prodrive by 2019, according to Alex Gruzen, Witricity’s chief executive.
Witricity is one of several start-ups competing with Qualcomm’s Halo technology. Others include Evatran, which started selling an aftermarket wireless charger in 2014. Momentum Dynamics, a start-up based in Malvern, Penn., is experimenting with wireless chargers for delivery trucks and forklifts, and has said that it will build a 200-kilowatt system by the end of the year.
Qualcomm has been testing its Halo wireless charging systems in a BMW hybrid used by the Formula E electric vehicle racing series. (Image courtesy of BMW).
Mercedes is also working on wireless charging alongside machine vision and wireless networking at its research lab in Sunnyvale, Calif. The new wireless charging system fits the blueprint that Mercedes has written for electric vehicles. At the Paris Auto Show this month, the company introduced an electric vehicle concept called Generation EQ, which will combine autonomous driving, wireless charging, and the ability to swap information with other cars on the road.
“You cannot call a car autonomous if it cannot fuel [or] recharge itself,” said Anthony Thomson, Qualcomm’s vice president of business development and marketing, in a statement. The company says that charging coils could be built into highways, intersections, and parking lots so that electric vehicles could be continuously refueled.
Over the last year, Qualcomm has tested a 7.7-kilowatt Halo system in a hybrid vehicle that emergency responders drove to accidents during the Formula E electric racing series. Several automotive suppliers, including Switzerland’s Brusa Elektronik, and Lear Corporation, have licensed its charging technology. The chipmaker is also helping to draft a wireless charging standard for the automotive industry.
That effort pushed forward earlier this year when Society of Automotive Engineers released guidelines for the first wireless charging standard, which was approved in May and operates over the 85 kHz spectrum, known as TIR J2954.
At a recent technology conference in Logan, Utah, the chairman of the society’s wireless power transfer committee, Jesse Schneider, said that the standard was necessary in order to ensure that wireless charging pads from different manufacturers could work with other cars.
The new standard makes charging automatic and “extends the range for vehicle customer only by parking in the right spot,” Schneider said in a statement.
While Qualcomm’s technology is a starting point, it’s not ready for electric vehicles. Qualcomm’s system is only 90% efficient, and the company has said it is not powerful enough to charge an electric vehicle in “a reasonable amount of time.” For an electric vehicle with a 30 kilowatt battery, a charger “needs double or even triple the charging power," the company said.