February 17th, 2019 by Steve Hanley
Things are happening at WiTricity, a world leader in wireless vehicle charging. Last week, it announced a new partnership with MAHLE, a Tier 1 supplier to the global automotive industry. The news this week is that WiTricity has acquired the intellectual property rights to QualComm’s Halo wireless charging technology. In exchange, QualComm is now a minority owner of WiTricity, which now controls more than 1,500 patents applicable to wireless charging, giving it a significant advantage over the competition.
“WiTricity’s wireless charging technology is key to the future of mobility which is clearly electric, and increasingly shared and autonomous,” said Alex Gruzen, CEO of WiTricity. “EV drivers and fleets demand a simple, effortless charging experience. Bringing the Qualcomm Halo technology into the WiTricity portfolio will simplify global interoperability and significantly accelerate commercialization. This is an exciting day for WiTricity, for automakers, for prospective EV buyers, and, ultimately, for any company deploying fleets of autonomous vehicles.”
CleanTechnica spent nearly an hour on the phone talking with Alex Gruzen, about the acquisition and how he sees the market for wireless charging developing. Affable and engaging, Gruzen is clearly excited about the future. Wireless charging has one enormous benefit, he says. It’s so simple — it takes all the worry out of driving an electric car. Park it and forget it. When you are ready to drive somewhere, just get in and go. No cables to unplug, no credit cards to swipe, no apps to use, no hassle, and no fuss.
Gruzen sees wireless charging as one of the keys to growing the electric vehicle market. For one thing, it allows EV drivers to pretty much forget about charging. Just park over a wireless hub and everything involved in keeping the battery charged happens seamless in the background. That’s great for drivers, but it’s even better for manufacturers.
The wireless technology offered by WiTricity completely eliminates the headaches carmakers have over charging standards. Because there is no physical connection between the vehicle and the charger, the WiTricity package ensures complete interoperability across all platforms. Whether you drive an Audi, a Volkswagen, a Honda, or a Chevy, the system operates seamlessly. Standardization means simplifying the process of licensing intellectual property. That means lower costs for the people who build cars, which translates into lower prices for consumers.
Gruzen says manufacturers are clamoring for wireless charging because it eliminates the tug of war between CHAdeMO, CCS Combo, and other plug-in standards. He is proud of the fact that WiTricity is the first wireless company invited to join the Chinese standards group. When asked if Tesla is onboard with the whole wireless thing, he delicately suggested that was a question best directed to Tesla.
WiTricity doesn’t build wireless charging equipment. It develops the technology and then licenses it to equipment makers. Gruzen says the expensive part of building charging networks is getting electrical power to the charging equipment. Once the supply lines are in place, it costs no more to install wireless charging equipment than it does conventional chargers.
Gruzen also noted there is what he calls an “arms race” between manufacturers when it comes to charging power and the time it takes to build your battery back up to an 80% state of charge. In his conversations with car manufacturers, he found they all agreed the sweet spot for normal charging is between 7.7 and 11 kW, and so that is the amount of power the WiTricity system is designed to handle. Gruzen says that amount of power is adequate for 95% or more of all charging. Higher power systems are available for commercial customers who operate fleets of trucks or buses.
Wireless charging works great for those who live in condominiums or apartment buildings. No need for dedicated chargers. Just install the chargers, then let people pull in and park. Billing is taken care of seamlessly in the background. That makes wireless charging ideal for China, where the vast majority of drivers do not have access to a private garage.
Gruzen sees wireless charging being vital to autonomous fleet operators. If there are no humans controlling those cars, there is no one to connect and disconnect charging cables. Tesla toyed with the idea of self-connecting charger cables a few years ago, but in the video the company released, the way the cable operated was more than a little suggestive. Tesla hasn’t had anything to say on the subject since then.
In Gruzen’s vision, wireless charging makes so much sense that it’s a wonder it is not universally accepted already. In particular, as more and more vehicles come equipped with some autonomous driving features, a few wireless hubs could meet the needs of several cars during a work day or at public parking facilities. Such an arrangement would allow the needs of EV drivers to be met with fewer chargers, saving everyone money.
Making a full Level 5 self-driving system that can control a car under all circumstances might be difficult, but making one for low-speed operation in a parking lot is a fairly simple proposition. In fact, WiTricity press relations officer Shannon Casey steered me to a video made by Hyundai last year dealing with precisely that situation.
Vehicle To Grid
What really floats Alex Gruzen’s boat is the prospect of using wireless charging in vehicle-to-grid applications. He says the technology and hardware his company has developed is quite happy to work in either direction. That opens up lots of possibilities for utility companies eager to leverage the storage capacity of all the batteries in electric cars in order to better manage the electrical grid. Frequency stabilization and peak demand shaving are just two of the benefits available.
I asked Alex about battery degradation, and he offered the following rejoinder. If vehicle owners can pocket payments from utility companies for allowing their cars to be connected to the grid, wouldn’t that reduce or eliminate many of those concerns? In Europe, experiments conducted by Nissan have generated cash flows of $1,500 or more per vehicle per year. Would most drivers be willing to participate in such an arrangement that puts money back in their pocket? Gruzen thinks the answer is yes. In fact, Honda and WiTricity presented a V2G proposal at CES last month.
What makes wireless charging perfect for V2G applications, Gruzen says, is that a car that needs to be plugged in can only be connected to the grid when the charging cable is connected. With wireless, the car is always connected to the grid if it is parked over a charging hub.
EV Market Penetration Higher Than Reported
Gruzen also has an interesting perspective on the EV market in the US. The news media makes a big deal out of proclaiming how low EV sales are as percentage of total sales. But Gruzen takes a different approach. Most EVs in the US, whether they are plug-in hybrids or battery electrics, are only generally available in a few states. Furthermore, most are sedans, which are not the sweet spot in the market today. On that basis, he feels the adoption rate is closer to 10% rather than 2% when compared to comparable models in states where EVs are available.
Alex Gruzen is a man on a mission and that mission is to make charging EVs so convenient and so transparent that people stop thinking about it. It’s all part of taking away the fear of driving an electric car that is still in the mind of many potential EV buyers. That’s a pretty good mission to have.
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