Induction system charges cars – but might fry cats!
On Tuesday, US wireless technology giant Qualcomm launched the London trial of its Halo wireless charger for electric vehicles (EVs).
Halo is a deceptively simple system, consisting of a charging terminal, a flat pad and a receiving pad on the car that can transmit several kilowatts of electricity over the air. According to Antony Thompson, VP of business development and marketing at Qualcomm, the company aims to make EV charging “as easy and widespread as Wi-Fi”.
On a sunny afternoon in Wimbledon, TechWeekEurope had a chance to see Halo in action, and we were very impressed.
Like a powermat for cars
Most of our readers know Qualcomm as the developer of wireless cellular standards and the designer of Snapdragon mobile chips. However, Halo is not the first automotive technology created by the US company. One of its first products was the satellite locating and messaging service OmniTRACS, and Qualcomm has been releasing a steady stream of car tech ever since.
In a broader sense, Qualcomm is designing a “connected car”, which is much more a device than a means of transportation. At the core of the concept is a wireless ecosystem that seamlessly charges, connects to various networks, downloads updates and apps.
Halo uses electro-magnetic induction to transfer 3, 7 or even 20 kW of power between two cleverly designed coils, with transmission rates similar to what you get with a traditional cable charger.
The installation is easy, even in home conditions – the pad just slips on top of the garage floor, accompanied by a terminal the size of a vacuum cleaner.
But among its most interesting features is the fact that the elements don’t have to be perfectly aligned, or even very close… It’s very easy to park on the charging spot – user just drives over the pad, and Halo will take care of the rest.
Induction, or coupling?
All this suggests that the system goes beyond simple elctromagnetic induction (as used to charge the humble electric toothbrosh) and possibly uses “resonant inductive coupling” where the electromagnetic signal is picked up more strongly because the receiving unit is “tuned” to the sending one.
QualComm bought the Halo technology, with its creator HaloIPT from New Zealand in 2011, and there are rivals. Toyota is working with WiTricity, who spoke to TechWeekEurope a couple of years back. Nissan is making its own tech for its LEAF car, and General Electric is working with PowerMat, who moved into car-charging when its mobile phone charging system turned out to be a dead end.
When installed on the street, the Halo system doesn’t require additional street furniture that can be vandalised, and there is no risk of elemental damage or oxidation of electric connections.
Halo is not affected by weather conditions. The company says that the charging will work even through a foot of snow. Finally, users will be able to avoid the risk of electrocution when charging their EV in heavy rain.
Qualcomm is very passionate about its technology, claiming it is different from anything offered by competitors, and protected by a plethora of patents. “To us, it’s still part-magical”, admits Thompson.
Since it is a new development, there are still some issues to be dealt with. At the moment, the device will fry a pan of eggs if it is left on the charging pad, and that doesn’t really inspire confidence in its safety features.
During charging, it could potentially hurt small animals that would get attracted by its warmth, prompting one journalist to joke that the device is the answer to the London urban fox problem. Obviously, testing it on living creatures presents challenges. However, the risk of frying your neighbour’s cat could be easily avoided through a combination of heat and motion sensors.
Besides danger to animals, the system has some reliability issues. During the demonstration, one of the Delta E4 cars wouldn’t “wake up” without any apparent reason, much to the dismay of Delta’s technical director.
Qualcomm is extremely busy testing and improving the technology. It has already invested a lot of money in it, but will not see a return until Halo is ready for licensing. However, as I was explained, the company makes an extra effort to stay relevant in the distant future, regularly launching R&D projects which might only pay off after a decade, or even further down the line.
Trials and tribulations
The current wireless charging trial will last for about two years, and consist of two phases. The first will utilise a small number of vehicles, with professional drivers using the system in controlled environments. It will feature 10 to 20 charging pads, most probably located at testers’ home and workplace, and help evaluate Halo’s commercial viability.
The second phase will see Halo used in more cars, and this is where Qualcomm will take interested parties on board. All of the cars chosen for the trial are fully electric, and include Delta E4 coupe, Citroen C1 and Renault Fluence.
“We think the market is ready. People are increasingly buying electric cars. But when we talk about EVs, there’s always this “chicken and egg” dilemma. Do we build the infrastructure first, or shall we focus on the cars? That’s why we are participating in the Halo trial,” a Reno spokesman told TechWeekEurope.
When asked about green credentials of electricity, which is still in large part produced using “dirty” fossil fuels, the Reno man remained optimistic. “We will still need a bit of fossil fuel for the next 10-20 years, but I’m sure that eventually we will find a new source of electricity. Nuclear power is already providing low emission power. Meanwhile, since we are a car company, we will focus on building cars.”
Electric car batteries in sufficient quantities could also be a tool to even out the demand on the electricity grid, according to TechWeekEurope editor Peter Judge, sometimes feeding energy back in at times of high demand.
“Halo is a really exciting project, and it allows us to learn a lot as a car manufacturer. Our engineers analyse the technology, learn to work with it. Our competitors think that having one EV model is enough. We have four [Twizy, Zoe, Kangoo Van and Fluence], and are planning more. We are trying to be different, to really focus on the eco-friendly vehicles,” he added.
Another Qualcomm partner is the UK-based motorsport engineering consultancy Delta, which has clients ranging from F1 teams to mainstream carmakers. “The integration of Qualcomm Halo EV charging technology will help us better understand future EV engineering challenges,” said Nick Carpenter, technical director of the company.
If the trials go well, we might see Halo in wider adoption as early as 2015-2017. In the future, Qualcomm envisions electric cars with small, light batteries (the ones used in the current Renault Fluence weigh around 300 kg, or 47 stone) that charge little, but often. Imagine topping up electricity while stopping for a traffic light, or standing in a shop car park. Smaller batteries would also decrease the weight and overall price of EVs.
And yet, Qualcomm’s dreams even bigger. Its ultimate goal is to design cars that charge as you drive. In this scenario, Halo modules would be installed into the roar itself, offering unlimited range to EVs, with only a tiny battery needed. Sure, it might sound like science fiction, but if someone had told me five years ago that electric cars will get electricity over the air, I would have said they were daydreaming. And I would be wrong.
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