Wireless charging could solve many of the problems faced in charging electric cars today. But for it to have a chance, automakers need to bring it into mass production.
Tesla’s recent investment in wireless electric vehicle charging signifies a major vote of confidence in this nascent but potentially revolutionary technology.
Тhe beginning of the venture in the wireless charging of Tesla cars
The pioneering electric car maker not long ago bought German company Wiferion. Tesla did not disclose how much it paid for the company, but its second-quarter cash flow statement indicates that $76 million was spent on a “business combination.”
The question is, what exactly does Tesla intend to do with its acquisition? And, given the huge impact Tesla is having on vehicle electrification, charging infrastructure and plug-in design, will this action spark broader industry interest in wireless charging?
Tesla cars wireless charging
Wireless charging is a tantalizing, futuristic proposition: all you have to do to refuel your car is park in the right spot and electricity will flow into the battery via magnetic resonance. Proponents of this technology have been touting it for years as a simpler and more reliable improvement over the wired chargers in use today, which are often frowned upon.
Commercialization of power equipment is always difficult, and in this case, mass adoption requires convincing automakers of a multi-year process to change the charger architecture. Several startups have failed while waiting to move beyond proof-of-concepts and into production; Tesla pulled its acquisition from the relatively small cohort of startups still pursuing the technology.
More about Wiferion
The company Wiferion that Tesla acquired does not specialize in the passenger car segment, but rather in low-powered electric and autonomous vehicles that move around automated warehouses and factories. The most logical next step for Tesla would be to apply the technology to its own high-tech manufacturing centers, but the acquisition gives it more engineering capabilities to develop wireless charging for cars in the future if it wants to.
Regardless of Tesla’s plans, many major automakers are actively exploring this technology. It will take years to make significant changes to the design of a car, but the tests already underway could lead to standard wireless charging options. Whether this pioneering technology can displace the traditional approach remains to be seen.
How can wireless charging of electric vehicles help the energy transition?
Charging is an essential element of an electric vehicle, but it often remains frustrating, if not impossible. Wireless charging could radically simplify this procedure.
Automakers are still trying to determine which charger plug design they should use. However, a universal standard for wireless charging of electric vehicles already exists, just as it does for wireless smartphone chargers. The professional association SAE International (formerly known as the Society of Automotive Engineers) published its standard in 2020 after more than a decade of testing with automakers, wireless charging startups, and healthcare providers.
These tests independently verified that wireless charging can transfer power from the grid to a car’s batteries with up to 94% efficiency.
Advantages of wireless car charging
Despite this, wireless charging has yet to take over the world, in part because automakers have not yet made it a standard feature of mass-produced electric vehicles. Buyers can install a wireless receiver on their car as an add-on, or they can install the transmitters themselves in floorboards at home or at gas stations. For now, it’s a lot more hassle than conventional charging.
Public wireless charging has many advantages. If it rains, the driver doesn’t have to get out of the car and get wet holding onto a high-voltage plug. The charger itself is not subject to the wear and tear that takes out modern charger plugs, broken screens, frayed cables, rotting, collisions with cars, etc.
According to Jeremy McCool, founder and CEO of HEVO, a company specializing in wireless charging, there’s also an underappreciated equity argument here. The bulky and heavy copper cables needed to charge electric vehicles are much more difficult for older or disabled drivers than gas stations. HEVO is working to integrate its chargers into vehicles designed for drivers with disabilities to make it easier for them to access the benefits of electric vehicles.
Wireless charging plays a key role in larger future concepts as well. If autonomous cars eventually change the mobility system, which many in Silicon Valley are still hoping for, robot cars won’t have hands to plug into an outlet when they need to refuel. To avoid waiting for a human, they will need wireless charging in one form or another.
Wireless car charging in the future
Some futurists envision building wireless charging into the roads themselves so drivers can refuel on the go, possibly eliminating range issues in areas where such infrastructure would be in place and reducing the need for increasingly high-capacity battery packs. This year, Detroit is partnering with Israeli company Electreon to equip a mile-long stretch of road with wireless charging.
“Once wireless networks are on the roads and you can drive from San Diego to San Francisco without having to stop and charge, there’s no turning back. This could become a reality in the next 30 years or so. This removes all the additional complexity associated with the introduction of electric vehicles.” – says McCool
The state of the wireless charging industry
There are noticeably few companies chasing this product, which, at least in theory, could reduce the difficulties associated with charging electric vehicles.
According to McCool, Brooklyn-based HEVO has received safety and performance certifications for its wireless chargers and has already shipped the first installations to customers on four continents. Massachusetts-based Witricity switched to electric vehicle charging after initially focusing on wireless phone charging; it is licensing the technology to other manufacturers. Israel-based Electreon specializes in wireless charging for fleets, embedding charging stations in roadbeds.
But otherwise this small sector has suffered a number of commercial setbacks on the way to commercializing this new equipment. Wave, a start-up company, focused on medium to heavy fleets and worked with several transportation agencies to charge their electric buses. In 2021, the company was bought by Ideanomics Holdings. A Nasdaq blog post later that year noted Ideanomics as a cheap stock “that is now under Wall Street’s radar”; it has since fallen even further and today trades at less than 10 cents a share.
Philadelphia-based Momentum Dynamics specialized in wireless charging for vehicles. The company recently underwent a change in which its principal investor rebranded and renamed it InductEv and formed a new board of directors and management team, according to an April 2023 press release. The company says it currently has 95 vehicles equipped with its products in service and plans a tenfold expansion this year. In March, InductEV successfully fended off a patent lawsuit filed against it by Witricity.
Another challenger, Plugless Power, didn’t make the list, though its co-founder and CEO Rebecca Tinucci eventually took a new position: she is currently senior director of electric vehicle charging at Tesla.
What’s next in wireless charging sector
To date, the utopian ambitions of the wireless charging sector have not led to tangible adoption. Equipment costs come down as scale increases, but so far adoption has been limited to small pilot and demonstration projects and niche aftermarket sales. Mass adoption depends on automakers getting into the game, at which point the technology could reach millions, not hundreds, of customers.
Some major automakers are already beginning to lay the groundwork for such adoption. Volkswagen, which has a plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is working with the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop its own wireless charging equipment. HEVO is currently testing with Stellantis, a conglomerate that owns Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Peugeot and others. Last year, Stellantis demonstrated the ability to wirelessly charge its electric cars in motion at a track called Arena del Futuro.
Will Tesla join other automakers by introducing wireless charging?
Tesla’s acquisition is aimed at a very specific specialty, and it’s not passenger vehicles.
Wiferion’s website says it specializes in “industrial wireless charging” for trucks, autonomous guided vehicles, autonomous mobile robots, and “tow trains.” These are the kind of emission-free vehicles that move through increasingly automated warehouses and factories to transport materials and products. Eventually, they need recharging, and wireless charging panels allow them to do so without human involvement.
Wiferion claims to have sold 8,000 charging systems, which for wireless charging in 2023 is quite an accomplishment. However, the product information on Wiferion’s website is aimed at owners of large industrial or commercial facilities.
In other words: if Tesla were to acquire Wiferion to do what it does best, it would be to improve Tesla’s own factories, which are known to push the boundaries of electrification and automation themselves.
Tesla could refocus that industrial skill set in charging to create a product line for its own passenger vehicles.
But that would require rebuilding systems around a much more powerful electric drivetrain, McCool noted. Wiferion says its wireless charger for autonomous driving vehicles, for example, “can serve all kinds of battery technologies and systems from 24 to 48 volts.” Tesla’s passenger vehicles use a 400-volt architecture.
Regardless of whether this deal becomes the realization of wireless charging for electric vehicles, the Tesla acquisition signals to the market that the technology is worth investing in. And the acquisition of Tesla, a leader in public charging that other automakers are trying to emulate, carries some weight.