Charging forward – how electrification of roads will make for greener EVs

February 15, 2023

In a recent article, we touched on why electric vehicles require such large, expensive batteries and the associated environmental concerns. We also looked at the potential costs and concerns related to the massive network of charging points planned across the U.S. to accommodate the expected growth in battery electric vehicles (BEV) over the coming years.

But what if there is an alternative to building millions of new charging points? What if we didn’t have to allocate additional real estate to ensure access to charging points? And what if the solution would allow for both smaller EV batteries and less time tethered to a charger?

The answer could be inductive power transfer. Better known simply as wireless charging, it is the transfer of energy through the air by creating a magnetic field between a transmitter and a receiver. Not a new concept, of course, as it was discovered and applied by the brilliant minds, Michael Faraday and later Nikola Tesla, well over a century ago. And yet, here we are in 2022, using this amazing technology at home just to charge our toothbrushes, cell phones, and earbuds.

But that could change in the near future as several companies are currently vying to develop electric roadways with dynamic inductive power transfer to charge your BEV while you’re driving. By creating a carefully planned network of such roadways and stationary wireless charging points, (anywhere a vehicle might sit a few moments) we could dramatically change how electric vehicles are used and make them both greener and more affordable.

Charging on the go would alleviate range anxiety, one of the key factors holding many consumers back from purchasing BEVs. Wireless charging would also allow batteries to be significantly smaller which, in turn, makes them less expensive as they require fewer costly metals like cobalt, nickel, lithium, and magnesium.

Not only would the cost of vehicle ownership decrease, but there would also be a dramatic increase in vehicle uptime for fleet operators, taxis, busses, and microtransit vehicles. Less time spent charging could even allow for an overall reduction in the number of vehicles needed in those fleets.

While improvements to the power grid would still be required, electrifying the road could be potentially less taxing on the grid, overall. And embedding the system in already existing roadways would require setting aside less new real estate than will be required by the tens of millions of charging points and stations eventually planned across the U.S. – stations that will also need year-round maintenance and repair.

Leading the charge

Electrifying roadways employs the use of copper coils buried just beneath the pavement or designated areas of parking garages, bus depots, or taxi ques. The coils then transfer energy through magnetic resonance induction to receivers installed on the vehicle.

The larger the coils, or the more coils embedded in the roads, the greater the distance the charge can travel to receivers. 

Electreon, an Israel-based provider of wireless charging technology has been leading the development of several testing sites around the world. “Our wireless charging and Electric Road technology enables electric vehicles to wirelessly charge while parked, idling, or driving at any speed, eliminating limited driving range and lowering EV operating costs.”

Working with the Swedish Transport Administration, Electreon is hoping to help Sweden reach a national target of installing 2,000 km (1,200 miles) of electrified roads by 2030. Sweden is far ahead of most nations in its efforts to phase out cars, vans, and trucks with internal combustion engines (ICE). Last year, 45% of all new vehicles sold in Sweden were plug in (BEV and hybrid).

And earlier this year, Electreon announced its first U.S. partnership. With the Michigan Department of Transportation, Electreon will deploy the first-ever shared public electric road system in the U.S. To be built in Detroit, the pilot program “will support a suite of use cases involving various vehicle types and partners including autonomous vehicles.”

Just four months earlier, in the fall of 2021, Electreon announced a partnership with the Israeli bus company, Dan Bus Company, to supply 200 electric buses with active charging capabilities in terminals for buses parked while passengers board and disembark.

Electreon’s wireless charging technology was named one of TIME’s 100 Best Inventions of 2021.

Pushing the technology even further is Munich-based Magment with their magnetic concrete. The product is a composite of recycled magnetic particles called ferrite sourced from e-waste recyclers which the company claims is easy to integrate into existing construction processes. A power transmitter coil is embedded in the magnetic concrete creating a focused magnetic field towards the vehicle receiver with a 95% efficiency rate. The concrete-encased coils are covered by a regular concrete or asphalt. Magment states the durability of the product allows for a lifetime of 20+ years.

Global concrete producer, Holcim has entered into a strategic partnership with the company and is looking at a multitude of future construction opportunities for the product. The technology is also currently being tested by researchers at Purdue University in Indiana, and with autonomous busses in Bavaria, Germany.

Magment has already produced and sold docking stations for electric scooters, helping to reduce the reliance on personnel picking up, charging, and redeploying the scooters to the street.

Magment was the 2018 winner of the German Innovation Awards and received Best Innovation Award 2021 from Brussels-based Smart Transportation Alliance.

A race to prove and deploy the technology

As promising as this technology may be, electrified roads may be left out infrastructure budgets by Departments of Transportation and other regulatory agencies as they focus primarily on charging points and mandating long distance range capabilities for batteries. Such requirements don’t yet account for the advantages of dynamic charging and, instead, direct funds to potentially more expensive infrastructure options.

However, Magment estimates new highway construction implementing their technology will increase costs only 5%-10%. At Electreon, they want to remove any additional construction costs. Employ their product and services and they’ll offer “no upfront infrastructure costs for implementing wireless charging for electric fleets, instead the company works with cities to offer a shared Charging as a Service (CaaS) platform.”

And let’s not forget, creating a payment system for drivers using electrified roadways requires additional back-end platform development and adoption, perhaps not unlike toll-road apps. And it requires current EVs to be modified with a receiver – something both Electreon and Magment claim is possible for any BEV or PHEV and can be done at a minimal cost. As vehicle manufacturers keep an eye on this technology, receivers may eventually become a standard option on future BEVs.

Given the varying geographic, demographic, and industry-specific needs, electric roadways won’t entirely replace the need for traditional charging points, but they do offer incredible potential benefits.

Where we will likely begin to see wireless charging

While road testing continues in several cities around the world, dynamic and stationary inductive wireless charging is likely to see early adoption by fleet operators such as busses and light-duty trucks, shipping and transportation ports, and factory or warehouse floors with heavy-equipment such as forklifts and robots. And there are even micromobility applications such as making charging available in sidewalks and building lobbies for e-bikes and electric scooters. These limited and controlled environments provide easier installation and create opportunities for greater real-world learning and eventual acceptance and assimilation of the technology.

Integration into current city streets will likely be determined by vehicle density, popular traffic routes, number of intersections, and other transit needs. Studying such data will allow transportation authorities to install dynamic wireless charging on a minimum number of streets yet ensure drivers are always near an electric roadway. For longer distances and in rural areas, highways will likely have a dedicated lane and rest areas for charging.

And just as we’ve discussed in previous articles, with the expansion of public/private partnerships to develop a national network of charging points, concerns of accessibility and affordability will need to be addressed. Just like all advances in mobility, broad success relies on ensuring low-income and rural communities are not left at a disadvantage.

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