Wireless charging and autonomous vehicles will mobilize the smart city

Wireless charging, autonomous vehicles and smart city

By Alex Gruzen, CEO of WiTricity

There’s no question that autonomous electric vehicles are coming. From Google and Uber to Tesla, BMW and Nissan, the world’s most innovative brands are conceiving and bringing to market entirely new modes of transportation that will revolutionize the ways in which we travel. According to Navigant Research, by 2035 the number of autonomous-capable vehicles sold worldwide is expected to reach 85 million annually.

However, the impact of the self-driving car will not only dramatically alter transportation, it will paint an entirely new picture of city living. The infrastructure that cities are built upon will need to be rethought. Autonomous vehicles will need power – and they in turn have the potential to become a moving power source for other connected devices. A fundamental part of the smart city of the future’s ecosystem: wireless power.


The autonomous future: what could be

Autonomous vehicles will offer a new mode of personal transportation to people who do not want to own a car for financial or personal reasons, and will deliver the huge benefit of mobility for people who cannot operate a vehicle – from children to the elderly to the disabled. More individuals will have the opportunity to be mobile and engaged members of their communities. When there is no driver, everybody will be a passenger and have the chance to use driving time to do work and be productive, or just nap and recharge.

The entire vehicle layout could be re-imagined, too. The car of the future could feature inward-facing lounge seats. The vehicle will no longer be just a mode of transportation, but an extension of the home or the office, creating a new environment to engage and add time to the day.

Beyond those benefits, streets will be safer and fewer accidents will occur, as smart technology will allow vehicles to automatically avoid road hazards. Public safety could increase through the elimination of drunk driving. Traffic congestion may decrease as cars will move at the same speed at regularly spaced intervals. Less time will be spent finding parking spots, as cars will be able to drop off their passengers, then go off to park on their own. City centers will waste less valuable real estate on parking lots and garages.


To optimize autonomous travel, add wireless charging

While autonomous vehicles are sure to revolutionize personal transportation, a major question has been largely overlooked: how will these cars be fueled? Consider the irony of having autonomous EVs cart our youth to school, take the injured to their doctor appointments and escort our elderly to the park, only to require some person to plug them in after a trip is complete. There has to be a simpler solution.

The charging process of the future must take people out of the charging equation, just as it takes them out of the driving equation. When a vehicle needs to charge, it will park itself over a wireless charging pad and automatically top up the battery without ever plugging in.

Replacing the power plug is a bold task, and will require wireless technology that can efficiently transfer a vehicle’s full power needs and that is flexible enough to work across a variety of vehicles. Perhaps the most promising technology is magnetic resonance. In fact, many automakers are already marching towards production in upcoming electric vehicles. Magnetic resonance offers a host of benefits, including flexible positioning, high efficiency, and the ability to transfer power through materials like concrete and asphalt. Magnetic resonance technology allows wireless charging pads to be installed on the ground, in the floor of a garage or under the road. Remarkably, the latest designs can move power at the same levels as plugging in and with similar efficiency – there is no penalty for going wireless. Autonomous vehicles will simply park and charge to top off their batteries. Without the need for human intervention to recharge batteries, vehicle transport can become another expected basic service like the internet or the electric grid, and passengers can focus on other concerns, knowing cars will be ready and available when needed.

As the technology matures and volume drives down costs, innovative companies can work with governments and infrastructure developers to create city-wide grids of wireless power sources embedded in streets. These embedded sources will wirelessly trickle-charge vehicles as they drive, allowing unmanned transporters to extend driving range or reduce the size and cost of batteries required to power the vehicles. With lower cost comes increased adoption, and a virtuous cycle is begun.

Moving the future: powering more than

Looking ahead even further, wireless charging and autonomous vehicles are a great fit with the concept of vehicle-to-grid (V2G) systems. V2G describes a system in which plug-in vehicles communicate with the power grid to manage bidirectional charging. Charging times can be scheduled to take advantage of the lowest rates, and vehicles can serve as power storage devices. A V2G network could efficiently move power around to where it is needed, at the lowest cost possible.

When combined with self-driving vehicles and wireless charging, V2G could become an automated process. Autonomous vehicles could deliver people to work or to their homes, connect to the power grid wirelessly, and return power to the grid to reduce overall usage. During off-peak hours, these vehicles could guide themselves to wireless charging spots to top off at reduced energy rates. V2G offers a unique solution to leveling out power usage and ensuring that additional capacity is always available, considering that at any given moment a vast majority of vehicles are idle.


The infrastructure to make it reality

Manufacturing and selling autonomous vehicles, and replacing fuel stations with wireless charging infrastructure in garages and ultimately in roads, certainly won’t happen overnight. We can expect these changes to occur over the coming decade, starting with plug-in hybrid and pure electric vehicles charging through wireless transmitter pads in their owners’ garages. From there, we can expect transmitter pads in office and mall parking lots before we will see them embedded in the roadways. Finally, once the infrastructure is embedded in the roadways, vehicles will be able to power-snack, store energy, and deliver it back to the grid. The key hurdle to be crossed here is not developing the technology, but reaching a critical mass in EV adoption, in order to make the infrastructure investments viable. For example, strong government intervention in favor of EVs in major Chinese cities, in part to reduce pollution, may in fact be setting the stage for this vision sooner than we would otherwise expect.

However, in order for this vision to become reality, interoperability will be critical. The wireless charging industry must agree on an interoperability standard so that vehicles and charging infrastructure can communicate with each other, ensuring a convenient user experience. The Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE) and other standards bodies are leading this effort to establish performance and safety criteria for the wireless charging of plug-in vehicles.

Already, some of the leading automotive brands, such as Toyota, BMW, Mercedes, Honda and Nissan, have announced plans to embed magnetic resonance charging into the vehicles they are creating. Tier 1 suppliers such as Delphi, TDK, IHI and Brusa are ramping up their capability to supply automakers with full solutions. As more follow suit and the SAE consolidates standards for magnetic resonance wireless charging, we’ll have the building blocks in place for the smart city evolution.

The new normal

Can the availability of wirelessly-charged autonomous EVs truly become an expected service in our cities, effectively becoming the new normal? The answer is yes. Just look at the phones in our homes, for example. While the Baby Boomer generation may still refer to them as “cordless phones,” Millennials simply call them “phones,” never having known cords in their lifetimes.

Recently, in the city of Austin, Texas, a referendum on driver fingerprint background checks resulted in both Uber and Lyft ceasing operations. It was remarkable to see how in just a couple of years the population had come to expect the availability of ride-hailing services, and how ill-prepared residents, visitors, and local businesses were for the sudden disappearance of this option for mobility. The city population had established new habits and embraced shared mobility faster than any of us could ever have imagined. In place of Uber and Lyft, Austin residents were quick to embrace alternatives such as Arcade City/Request a Ride – a Facebook group that enables users to find rides to and from their destinations – and new ride-hailing apps like getme, Fare and Fasten.

With this perspective, it’s clear that the availability of autonomous electric vehicles will quickly become an expected service in cities, providing convenience, public safety and productivity, while dramatically improving the environment. The rapid advances in magnetic resonance wireless charging will play an exciting role in enabling this “new normal.”


This article originally appeared in Charged Issue 26 – July/August 2016. – Subscribe now.

  • Alan Thomas

    IN the UK, at least, we’d just got over digging up all the roads and the traffic chaos involved for Natural Gas, (“Sorry we’re turning off your gas till we’re done”) Traffic back to normal. Then along came the teams replacing or lining our Victorian water mains with the same effect. (“Sorry we’re turning off your water and gas till we’re done”) Job done. Traffic back to normal. Time for fibre-optic telecoms ((“Sorry we’re turning off your water, gas, phone and broadband till we’re done”) and that’s still going on, traffic still chaos in some places.
    OK, so I’ve exaggerated – denial of individual services was only for a day here and there in most cases. So not only will we have a repeat performance while the electricity mains are upgraded, but somehow we have to find time and physical space among all the cables, wires, pipes, pipes and more pipes for the buried wireless charging.
    I hope all the downsides, re-laying of services, cost of congestion, pollution and accidents are being factored in.

    • Ken

      No your not exaggerating. In the world of government efficiency. A street next to us was dug up 3 times in the last 2 years, because nobody can coordinate. A total waste of manpower, machine power, and natural resources. Its a sad example of why we waste so much to make changes. The changes made, are all a result that poor planning caused 3 times the work to be done. If we combined road construction, with the gas companies and the water companies, and so on, But alas we live in a society that loves to waste money. The other stupid thing is that they paved 90 percent of this street and left the other 10 percent unchanged, Surely that results in a way to force it to have to be paved again within the next few years. Its like taking a shower and putting on your dirty underwear,

  • jstack6

    V2G is being used in Delaware State with no wireless charging connections. It pays and is very efficient. Wireless still needs to have better standards and improves the 10% or more loss in the connection. It’s pretty easy to plug in.

    • Ken

      Its reality that you cannot make WiTricity totally efficient. If you could you could solve all the worlds energy problems, making electricity cheaper. Generators are only so efficient. Granted over the hundreds of years they were invented, their design and efficiency have increased. I see a lot of that is by increasing the speed. Someday we will break away from 60 cycles AC and go to a much higher frequency standard bringing the ability to do more with less power. But until that day comes, were faced with ancient technology. But hey we could have been living in a DC world of Edison, when Tesla managed to get us to AC technology. Even if it isn’t as efficient as it could be.

  • brian_gilbert

    It is easy enough for a vehicle to connect directly to the power supply using side contacts as in the Heathrow Personal Rapid Transit /ystem since 2011. Alternatively it could approach the charging point headfirst and push its plug into a socket.

    • Ken

      But that does not eliminate the problem. Eventually the sockets and plugs will physically wear out. Thus the savings of wireless charging then becomes much cheaper. And you cannot rely on your EV to make a physical connection, if you threw a monkey wrench in the way. Like you put a trashcan near the charge plug, and it cannot get to the charge plug. Face it there is no perfect world, but wireless anything holds a lot more long term than does anything requiring a physical connection.

  • Jim Fox

    Off Topic—There is an elephant in the EV room. Where will the massive increase in electrical demand come from? Renewables won’t do it. Nuclear could- but not current reactors, too big, too costly, too long to come on line.
    Any ideas?

    • Michael B

      Most EVs charge at night, when there is already excess capacity. So the generation mix will look similar to whatever the general mix is at the time (which happens to be getting cleaner all the time). In any case, even if new natural gas plants need to be built, there’ll be plenty of time to do so and the trade-off for not having to buy, import, refine and burn petroleum will be WELL with it.

      • Jim Fox

        Valid points. But even more off-topic, demand in India and China is rocketing regardless of EV uptake. So much latest innovation is dependent on electrical generation; fossil fuels are not the long-term solution, gas is better than coal or oil, yes.
        Small modular nuclear Gen IV reactors seem to be the best guess, at this point. Unless a radical new tech appears out of nowhere!

    • Frank Podesta

      Jim, as I told Brian Gilbert in a comment a while back, people are starting to realize that the demand is going to soon be greater than the available supply. What happens in an economy with Demand out reaches supply? You got it the price goes up until the problem is solved. The gas price might be surpassed by the electric charging rates. There is only one company that will really help decrease the demand, and I work for them. They have had this on their radar for quite some years. This will not totally solve the demand problem, but for now would slow down and better regulate the demand issue where utilized. Its all about time and usage. Musk has brought up a lot of great ideas and now we should all work on making some of them cost effective.

    • gizmowiz


      • Jim Fox

        You make a totally valid point. The ONLY reason I can see for not acting on Yellowstone is that its America’s first & most famous nature reserve? I mean,
        the money coming from visitors and all..
        Actually, something has been going on since 2002–

        But then– http://www.rense.com/general31/overdue.htm

        We may be in for some ‘entertainment’!
        “Scientist have discovered that the ground in Yellowstone if 74cm higher than in was in 1923 – indicating a massive swelling underneath the park. The reservoir is filling with magma at an alarming rate. The volcano erupts with a near-clockwork cycle of every 600,000 years. The last eruption was more than 640,000 years ago – we are overdue for annihilation.”

  • Dan

    V2G won’t work in Australia…Max 10c FIT per KwH and then get charged 50c for the same KwH when drawing from AusGrid…

    • Ken

      Showing what works for some does not work for others. But if the demand goes up, and so will the funding to bring better infrastructure, So while today the power grid is inadequate, as the EVs and such increase, so will the changes come. The biggest concern is seeing fueling the cost of increased electrical demand, outweigh the use of fuel to power that demend. Or more so HOW the power will be created, efficiently. While this technology leans toward luxury, like cell phones it becomes cheaper all the time, putting it into the hands of consumers for free now.
      I have a safelink phone. The free phones are still basic phones, but they are slowly replacing them with smart phones, as the cell phone companies no longer make them. And the cost of a cheap smartphone is well within reach. Also the monthly minutes are rising, to give even the homeless a way to be connected to the world.