What If Electric Cars Could Charge Without Plugs?

MIT researchers developed a technique for wireless charging for years ago. Now it could be used for electric cars.

Four years ago, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a technique for charging batteries without wires that could free gadget afficionados from the tyranny of wires. Now, Scientific American reports, some researchers are considering how that technology could be applied to largest of all consumer gadgets—electric vehicles.

Wireless car charging offers the tantalizing prospect of lifting the burden of charging from the consumer. If a car can charge without a wire, an EV driver can park and rush to a meeting without pausing to plug in. Wireless charging also means cars may be able to charge while they're moving.

Plug-in electric cars are starting to venture out onto the road on a regular basis, and car companies are working hard to reassure potential owners that EVs have long enough ranges for the vast majority of drivers. But any cell phone owner knows that having your gadget work "most of the time" is not good enough. It’s those hectic days when normal routines are abandoned that a phone’s battery will give out right when it’s needed most. And that's even more problematic for your car than your phone.

The basic principle of wireless charging involves using two coils—one in the charger and one in the object-to-be-charged—to induce magnetic fields. In most commercial wireless products on the market today, the charging object has to be practically touching the charger. But WiTricity, the company that’s working with the auto industry, has technology that can charge over longer distances. Chargers could live in the roofs of parking garages, in the ground, or at bus stops. They could be installed along the side of the road for constant, on-the-go charging.

Considering the hubbub about the health effects of cell phones on the human brain, it’s fair to assume that the specter of a magnetic field shadowing every inch of American road space would draw out consumer paranoia. And right now, this technology is little more than an idea: the projects that Scientific American found are all prototypes, not ready-for-market models. And wireless charging is not particularly practical at the moment: cars can only move about 18 inches away from the charger before the magic stops.

If this technology does move into the real world, it will require infrastructure anywhere EVs want to go. That means it’s not a bad option for buses, as one researcher envisions, because transit systems already have an network of bus stops in place. Planning for cars will take more work, and there are competing options using existing technology. But one thing is clear: Pretty soon, plugging in won't be a necessity for EV drivers.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user spDuchamp

Julian Meehan

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