2/24/2012 | 5 MINUTE READ

Charging Electric Vehicles —Without a Plug

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While you undoubtedly have a phone on your desk that’s wired to the wall, you also have one or more phones in your purse or pocket. And the company that helps make that mobile phone possible has turned its attention to electric vehicle charging—wireless charging.


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Let’s assume that you owned the Rolls-Royce Phantom 102EX shown in the accompanying photo near the Eiffel Tower. You couldn’t actually own it, of course, because it is an experimental vehicle. But if you could, know that it is in the GKL++ segment, which means it’s a vehicle that starts north of €200,000.
What makes the 102EX, which is based on the Phantom, which the people at Rolls describe as “a strikingly modern and immaculately proportioned car in which high technology and hand-craftsmanship combine to produce something extraordinary,” an experimental vehicle is that it is an electric vehicle (EV).
That is, whereas your [extra]ordinary Phantom has a 6.75-liter, V12 engine under its bonnet, the 102EX has a system including two 145-kW motors and a battery pack—thought to be the largest passenger car battery in the world (which isn’t surprising, given that the vehicle weighs 5,997 lb.)—that is based on NCM chemistry, which is lithium-nickel-cobalt-manganese-oxide. The battery consists of five modules; the biggest has 38 NCM cells, and the others contain 36, 10, eight, and four. The peak current is 330 kW at 850 amps.

The vehicle range is on the order of 124 miles. (Incidentally, the battery pack alone weighs 1,411 lb.)

Here’s the thing: If you are rolling along in your 102EX and see that your electricity is running a bit low, what’s the likelihood that you’d want to have to stop at your nearest charging station, flip open the cleverly designed cap over the plug and five pin socket (there is a clear door with logos inscribed on it) and hook up for single-phase (20 hours) or three-phase (8 hours) charging, even though when hooked up, the whole thing glows with an ethereally blue light.
No, you’d probably prefer to do as little as possible. Which brings us to another alternative: inductive charging. Yes, the 102EX is fitted with induction charging technology. Essentially, there is a base charging unit (BCU), or transfer pad, which is on or even in the ground (say, in your forecourt) and a vehicle charging unit (VCU), or induction pad, fitted to the bottom of the vehicle. The BCU is attached to an electrical utility. Charging is performed via the magnetic coupling of these two units at low frequency. Then there is a pickup controller that takes power and provides controlled output to charge the batteries.
The separation between the BCU and the VCU in the case of the 102EX is approximately 6 in.
While this may sound all very posh, according to Andrew Gilbert, executive vice president, European Innovation Development, Qualcomm, it is technology that Qualcomm (qualcomm.com) is very keenly developing for commercial application in all manner of EVs. The Phantom 102EX, which went on a month’s long world tour after its unveiling at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show, was one of the demonstrations of the technology that Qualcomm has developed for wireless vehicle charging.
Qualcomm? As in the San Diego-based company that produces chipsets for mobile phone applications? Yes, that Qualcomm. Cellphones are one thing,but EVs? 
Gilbert points out that Dr. Paul Jacobs, chairman and CEO of the company, happens to be on the board of battery producer A123 Systems 123systems.com). In addition to which, Gilbert explains, “One of the primary ways we make money is to license our technology to a wide range of industries.” So they’re aggressively undertaking research projects on things ranging from augmented reality to WiFi. Part of Gilbert’s job is to identify areas of technology. Qualcomm has been participating in the development of wireless charging of cellphones. Gilbert began to think in terms of technology for automotive and conducted a survey of companies that were involved in developments in the wireless charging space.
He identified one, HaloIPT, which was a spin out from the University of Auckland. Yes, New Zealand. Gilbert says they’d been working on wireless vehicle charging since the 1970s. In November, 2011, Qualcomm acquired the assets and personnel of HaloIPT.
“The key thing to me about building a wireless power solution is efficiency and ease of use,” Gilbert says. As for the former, the transfer efficiency across the air-gap is on the order of 97%; DC-to-DC efficiency is over 90%. Charging time for the inductive charging is the same as would be the case with a wire, plug and socket (physics are physics).
The ease of use is the real game changer in Gilbert’s estimation. He says that while some available systems require precision alignment between the BCU and VCU, perhaps deploying a micro-navigation system to get things oriented just so, the Qualcomm Halo system is tolerant to misalignment by up to nearly 8 in. (200 mm) while still providing the same charging rate.
“We are building physical equipment at the moment because otherwise there wouldn’t be any for trials and things,” Gilbert says, noting, “We are not nor do we intend to be a Tier One supplier of components.” What they’re looking to do is to develop and transfer the technology to licenses—everything including reference designs, APIs, software development kits, and tech support. Gilbert says that given its experience in other markets, like mobile communications, there is an understanding of the need to develop standards, so they will participate in that. And that making it consumer-desirable is essential, as well, because that’s the way the company ultimately makes its money.
From the point of view of cost, he admits, “I’ve yet to find anything wireless that is head-to-head cheaper than wired. Usually a plug and cable are cheaper to produce than a wireless system.” But, and this is where market forces of high tech come into play, “The economies of scale of the cell phone industry”—as in “wireless”—“have far surpassed the wired industry.” So he anticipates that the cost of the technology could go down exceedingly fast, as has been the case in the phone market.
He thinks that consumer demand would be high once the convenience is recognized. Meaning, you simply park—at home, in a parking garage, at a mall—in a designated location, and the BCU and VCU run the appropriate communications and the charging commences. Nothing to plug in. But he does think that there is likely to be (as in the case of the Phantom 102EX) both a socket and a VCU pad on vehicles.
“Ultimately, we see it as a replacement. The ease of wireless has been proven time and time again. Once you un-tether an experience, the consumers don’t tend to go back,” Gilbert says.
Presently, Qualcomm is running a wireless charging trial in London with support from the UK Government, Transport for London, and the Mayor of London. There are 50 vehicles involved. Vehicles like cabs. Not the Phantom 102EX.