Charge While You Drive: The Rx for Range Anxiety?

Angie Ziech-Malek, Zondits staff, 6/17/2022

In what is sure to be a scene repeated in many households in many countries over the next few years, my husband and I recently sat down to discuss if we were ready to go all-electric for our next vehicle. Our 15-year-old car had lost its reliability and, given that we are both climate conscious, tech savvy urbanites (pass the granola!), surely an electric vehicle (EV) would be a no brainer for us. But without a lot of spare time and space, how could we charge the thing? Innovative approaches to vehicle charging may eliminate that hurdle. One approach would allow wireless charging at locations without plugging in, the other even allows charging while you are driving.

“Range anxiety” has been cited most prolifically as the main barrier that is holding American drivers back from EV purchases. But “range anxiety” is actually better described as “charging anxiety” because it represents the concern that drivers will be left immobile when the electric vehicle has used up its full battery charge. A typical internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle’s gas tank might hold 20 gallons of gas and with an average fuel economy of 25 miles per gallon, that’s a range of 500 miles, not that much greater than some EVs on the market with ranges of over 300 miles. Yet, ICE vehicle drivers don’t get “range anxiety” because they know that gas stations are easy to find and use. Unfortunately, American drivers are not yet convinced that EV charging stations are easy to find and use. Policy makers looking to promote EV ownership have focused on funding and building out charging stations with the aim to make them as easy to find and use as gas stations. But, what if, instead of trying to replicate the experience of ICE vehicle ownership, the EV could offer its owner an experience where fueling barely crosses their mind? Not only would that alleviate “range anxiety” but it would offer a far superior mobility experience than a typical gas fueled ICE vehicle. Such is the promise of wireless charging: a charging experience integrated into the driving experience itself.

Many people are already familiar with wireless charging (also known as inductive charging) technology to charge common devices such as mobile phones, smart watches, or electric toothbrushes. Inductive charging relies on the ability to transmit electricity through the air by creating a magnetic field between two circuits. Wireless charging of EV batteries works much in the same way. Electricity is transferred from a magnetic coil in the charger to another magnetic coil in the EV. When the coils are aligned, the electricity transfer begins, and the battery is charged. Much like the wireless phone charger or electric toothbrush, the vehicle is charged when it is placed above the charging pad. The charging pad itself could be placed anywhere you might want to charge a vehicle: in your garage, under the parking space at the grocery store, under the street parking space in front of the midrise apartment unit in an urban area, etc. Expanding this type of charging infrastructure to the places where cars are already likely to be stationed could alleviate accessibility and equity issues associated with the build out of charging infrastructure. However, the real excitement of wireless charging lies in the promise of charging while the vehicle is in motion.

Several projects are underway to test the concept of wireless charging in motion.

  • Swedish car-maker Volvo has partnered with the City of Gothenburg, Sweden to conduct a three-year pilot project to test how wireless charging could support a small fleet of electric taxis.  The vehicles will be driven for up to 12 hours a day on the wireless charging system and data will be collected on the vehicle’s performance and the driver’s experience.
  • The U.S.’s own Motor City will, appropriately, be the first American location to install wireless charging infrastructure on a public road. The Michigan Department of Transportation is providing $1.9 million to fund a pilot for a one mile stretch of wireless EV charging in Detroit, which aims to be operational by 2023.
  • Similarly in the Midwest, the Indiana Department of Transportation (IDOT) is partnering with Purdue University on a pilot project that will wirelessly charge vehicles through magnetizable concrete materials developed by a German company. One Purdue engineering professor stated that the goal of the technology is to “dispel the worries drivers have about how far they can go on a charge by bringing the charge to them.” The project will be completed over three phases: research, testing, and construction of a quarter mile test road in 2023. If the project is successful, IDOT will use the new technology to electrify a portion of interstate highway in Indiana.
  • Other projects in places from the United Kingdom to Israel are underway to test the viability of wireless charging for moving commercial and passenger vehicles.

Though the technology itself is well understood, these pilot and test projects are essential to develop the understanding how of the wireless technology will work in practice. There are a lot of practical challenges to work out before wireless charging is as widely available as gas stations. Several iterations will be needed to fine tune the safety and applicability of this technology, which may take years. There is also the policy issue of how the cost of this infrastructure will be covered. Not only for the initial capital investments of installing the coils and cables under the roads, but also for the continued use of the charging infrastructure. One option may be a user fee, similar to a tollway or congestion pricing model, whereby drivers pay to drive (and charge) on the road. This would have the simultaneous benefit of covering some lost highway funding, foregone from gas tax revenues as EVs are more widely adopted.

The best approach to EV charging may be an “all of the above” approach to charging infrastructure: DCFC stations sprinkled throughout highly populated areas, Level 2 chargers at homes and workplaces, wireless charging under parking lots, parking lanes, streets, and highways. With this approach, the charging mix offers something to all vehicles regardless of their location and their job to be done at that time. Anywhere cars travel, there should be an option for a recharge! Given that almost a quarter of new car shoppers have indicated they are very likely to consider an EV, now is the time to make investments in projects that will make the charging experience seamless for drivers.

Furthermore, if this concept can be proven and if wireless charging becomes ubiquitous, battery size would be irrelevant and “range anxiety” would be overcome. Even with a 15-kWh battery (which would result in about 40 miles of range, depending on the car), the range would essentially be infinite, and no stops would be necessary to refuel. Drivers wouldn’t have to do the mental math or scour Google maps for charging stations before even leaving the house. Cars could be designed to be lightweight and inexpensive without the need for a 400-mi range battery. EV ownership could be available to the masses, which is essential. In 2019, the transportation sector made up 30% of the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions, of which almost 60% were from passenger vehicles. To decarbonize our economy, it is imperative that we facilitate the transition to electric vehicles with speed and purpose.

Explore an interesting webinar series on EVs and electrified transportation here.