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Fix the Planet: How will we charge millions of cars?

I’m not going to dwell here on whether electricity supplies will cope (they will) or whether there are enough public chargers (for the most part, there are), but on innovation. The clever ideas that will make charging faster, easier and available in even seemingly hard-to-reach areas.


Let’s start with the jazz hands stuff: wireless charging. It works just like wireless phone charging, using coils to create an electromagnetic field to transmit power from a pad in the ground to one on the underside of the car. The industry folk that I spoke to think it won’t make much of an impact. That’s because plugging in isn’t hard, while wireless generally means slow (for now), more cost and the pads need to be aligned to work best. There is also the small matter that most car makers aren’t fitting wireless plates.


Nottingham in the UK is trialling wireless charging for taxis outside its railway station. Sometime in the next four months, five pads are going in and 10 electric taxis are getting them too. Wireless is attractive for taxi drivers: no need to get out, no safety issues or clutter outside busy places like stations, and the cars might only be parked for 5 minutes.“Taxis are a really good use case,” says Rob Anderson at Cenex, which is behind the £3 million scheme, WiCET. One small but key thing will be to see what the margins of error are on getting the pads lined up.


You may have seen videos of roads that can charge a car as it travels: there is a Scalextric-style one in Sweden, and a wireless one in France. I love the idea. The big question is: would you really need it? We don’t fill up petrol cars while they are whizzing along. Static chargers are proliferating and cars’ battery ranges growing. There is also the question of who should pay for it. “It’s just ridiculously expensive. I don’t think this approach is critical to the rollout of electric cars,” says Ben Lane at Zap-Map, which makes an app for finding chargers. Anderson is more optimistic and thinks static wireless charging could prove a stepping stone to charging while cars are moving.


One thing everyone agrees is chargers are getting faster. “The next innovation is on increasing the speed,” says Tom Callow at BP Chargemaster, a UK-based car-charging network. While your home has a 3kW plug that will take a whole night to charge a car, networks are increasingly upgrading from 50kW points to 150kW ones, which can add around 150 kilometres of range in about 10 minutes. Exact numbers vary from car to car. Previously such speeds were the preserve of Tesla’s supercharger network, which has even started bumping up to 250KW at some sites. Rivals are now speeding up. The Ionity network offers 350kW chargers, enough for more than a 150 kilometres range in a few minutes. “At 150-350kW, drivers may not get a full charge but the 100-200 miles they need to get to the next charger or several days of driving,” says Ryan Fisher at analyst firm BloombergNEF.


Today, largely no. The exceptions are Teslas, electric Porsches and a handful of other models. But experts tell me that manufacturers are in an arms race, and capacity for more powerful chargers will trickle down fast to mass-market cars.


One answer to this is that you'll charge nearby at an increasing whizzy fast hub (see above). The other is there's some clever stuff to bring it to your street. "There's definto UK streetlamps, a number still growing. In the UK, broadband company Virgin is using its street cabinets to provide charging points. New designs are popping up all the time – some literally, like Urban Electric Networks, which has a charger that recedes into the ground when not in use. There's a trial of the pop-up charger in Oxford, with more to come this year in other UK cities. By the end of March another UK firm, Connected Kerb, will have fitted about 300 chargers, including ones attached to existing street furniture such as parking sign posts.


It isn’t exactly innovation, but in different regions of the world, companies are converging around standards on the types of socket your vehicle will be plugging into, which is good news for drivers. In Europe that has become CCS2. Here’s what the picture is like in the UK.


While sometimes painted as a burden on electricity networks, electric cars could also prove a boon. Vehicle-to-grid technology would let grid operators call on the cars’ batteries in times of need, if demand suddenly surged or the weather unexpectedly becalmed wind farms. There are many trials, including one by UK energy supplier Ovo, which thinks the income a driver gets in return could cover their annual charging costs. But this idea only works with certain car models, certain chargers and there are big outstanding questions. Will drivers be happy waking up to, say, a 70 per cent charge rather than a 100 per cent one? Will they get paid enough for their services to offset the degradation to the battery? It is early days.


The robots are coming. Not to wipe you out, but as mobile battery units that will autonomously trundle around and charge your car while parked. And they will even be absurdly anthropomorphised with eyes, if Volkswagen gets its way, as the concept (not product!) below shows. Fisher says that while robotic charging might seem far off, it could arrive sooner than we think for buses and trucks, where high wattage connections would be safer done by robots than humans.

Article originally posted by New Scientist.