Electric Roads to Unlock EV Potential

July 5, 2017

The environmental benefits of electric vehicles seem obvious but will take-up ever really take-off when batteries limit drivers to a hundred miles or so between charges? On the other hand, electric trains have been about for years and run non-stop.

So imagine a world with ‘electric roads’.

Developers are now actively exploring ways to tackle automotive charging on the move by sending power via the carriageway into your car or van. The outcome of trials really could be a game-changer for future automotive propulsion. There’s probably one single factor restricting the uptake of electric cars and vans – after around 100 miles or so (give or take 50!) they need recharging. This means that a long journey undertaken in a day is impractical and any temptation to ‘push the boundaries’ will certainly result in an anxious driver and quite possibly an immobile vehicle. The brakes could well come off if trials with new wireless charging technology prove successful.

” The potential for fleets to be more open to EV technology ultimately could increase sales and help achieve challenging Co2 targets..”

Technology Trials

Wireless charging of mobile phones has now become commonplace and ‘inductive charging’ of electric vehicles follows the same principle. These trials are testing the feasibility of vehicles being charged whilst moving along roads equipped with special hardware.

The principle is relatively simple. Power lines are connected to coils buried underneath the road surface. Power is transmitted electromagnetically to a receiving coil in a vehicle passing over thereby charging its battery and, theoretically extending the range the car could achieve prior to needing to be ‘plugged in’.

As early as 2013 Swedish truck manufacturer, Scania, announced its intention to trial the technology and in the same year the UK Highways Agency commenced an initial £200,000 feasibility study into the practicalities of Dynamic Wireless Power Transfer (DWPT). Subsequent to this, an intention was announced to extend this to ‘off road’ trials.  In May 2017 Qualcomm Technologies demonstrated their own system at an event in France, utilising a 100 metre specially prepared track and two Renault Kangoo vans.

Is it Worth it?

Potential advantages for development are clear. Combined with careful route planning to include roads equipped with DWPT hardware range will be increased. Time spent at charging stations en route will be reduced or even eliminated. Manufacturers could design vehicles with smaller batteries, reducing charging times and allowing an increased payload on commercial vehicles. Currently the weight of batteries is proving challenging to van manufacturers and their customers. The potential for fleets, small businesses and the private owner to be more open to EV technology ultimately could increase sales and help territories achieve challenging Co2 targets. Towns and cities implementing ULEZ’s (Ultra Low Emission Zones) will be increasingly difficult to access for diesel engine vehicles and EVs provide a perfect solution.

It’s not all plain sailing though and a number of questions and potential pitfalls come to mind. The cost and disruption of installing the necessary hardware into existing roads presumably could be prohibitive. Perhaps less so if included when new roads are constructed but for vehicle manufacturers to commit to designing vehicles which have the required technology built in they would undoubtedly need to see firm evidence that a government had 100% buy in to the scheme. In addition, would a car or van maker see any viability in research and development if only one European territory was expressing an interest or intention in DWPT technology? How would the cost of building the infrastructure and the power provided to the vehicle be recovered? As one of the main benefits of operating an EV is the negligible cost of charging, how much would an owner be prepared to pay for the convenience of charging ‘on the move’?