How Wireless Car Chargers Work With Phones

Wireless charging has arrived, but is it in your car?

A phone in a car that's ready for a wireless charger.

  Tomasz Zajda / EyeEm / Getty

Wireless charging is a fascinating technology that uses magnetic fields to transfer energy from a charger to a battery. It has found uses in a lot of different places, but most people have encountered it through their phones. The question is whether you can take this technology off your desk and use it in your car, and the answer is a resounding yes.

You really can use a wireless charger in your car to power up your phone on the road, but very few cars come with the technology built in. If your car doesn't have a built-in charger, but you're still interested, we'll go over how this technology works, why you might want to use it, and how you can get it in your car.

If you aren't interested in the nitty gritty, and you're already sold on the idea of wireless charging, check out our guide to the best wireless phone charger on the market. Choose the one that's right for you, plug it in, and you're good to go.

How Does Wireless Charging Work?

Wireless charging technology is also referred to as inductive charging, which is a fairly accurate description of how it works. The basic idea is that a base station generates an electric field, which transfers energy to a compatible device via an inductive coupling.

This type of charging is less efficient than charging systems that use conductive couplings, but they are somewhat easier to use due to the fact that you don’t have to physically plug anything in.

Instead of plugging in a charger, you simply set your phone, or any other compatible device, on the base station, and it automatically starts to charge.

Although wireless charging, and wireless electricity in general, may seem like science fiction, it has actually been around for a long time. If you’ve ever seen an Oral-B electric toothbrush, then you’ve seen inductive charging in action, since Braun has been using the technology in that application since the early 1990s.

Other industries were slower to adapt the technology, but the first cell phone with built-in inductive charging was launched in 2009, which is the same year that the Wireless Power Consortium introduced the Qi standard, which allows for interoperability between chargers and devices made by different companies.

Inductive Charging in Automotive Applications

The first time inductive charging showed up in cars, it was actually used to charge electric vehicles. As far back as the late 1990s, a system called Magne Charge used an inductive coupling to charge electric cars, although it was replaced by a standard conductive coupling in the early 2000s.

Although inductive couplings are inherently safer in those applications, conductive couplings—with additional built-in safeguards—won out due to the fact that inductive chargers aren’t as energy efficient as conductive chargers.

Today, inductive charging has made a reappearance in the automotive world, and you can use it to charge your phone or any other compatible device. ​

How to Charge Your Phone Wirelessly in Your Car

Your basic options, if you’re interested in wireless charging on the road, are to buy a car that comes with an OEM-installed charging station or install an aftermarket charging station in a car that you already own.

If your phone doesn't support wireless charging, you'll also have to either buy a new phone with built-in wireless charging functionality, or purchase a wireless charging adapter. These adapters are inexpensive, and you can sometimes install them inside your phone case.

Nothing is ever quite that simple, so it's important to point out that there are two competing wireless charging technologies that you may run into: Powermat and Qi.

Qi is the clear leader in the world of cell phones, with a host of cellular phone manufacturers having jumped on the Qi bandwagon. So if you own a phone that is already Qi-compatible, then you’ll want to look for a Qi-based charger.

Some automakers went with the Powermat standard, so you may find yourself the proud owner of a Powermat-based wireless charger whether you want it or not at some point in the future.

Built-in Automotive Wireless Phone Chargers

Two of the first automakers to commit to installing wireless phone chargers at the factory were Toyota and Chevrolet, and each one opted for a different standard.

The Qi system is currently available from Toyota, and GM’s first demonstration of wireless charging technology was in the 2011 Chevy Volt, although the option didn’t make it to production vehicles at that time.

If you’re in the market for a new car anyway, and you’re an early adopter type, then those are two of the places you can look. Or if you’ve already purchased a new vehicle that came with a wireless charger, then you’re pretty much locked into whatever it came with. However, it’s also possible to install an aftermarket charger, and in that case, you have a lot more control.

Aftermarket Automotive Wireless Phone Chargers

Unlike factory-installed systems, which lock you into one charging standard, you have options if you go the aftermarket route.

The first thing you have to do is choose between Qi and Powermat. If your phone supports Qi without any attachments, then you’ll be best served by choosing a Qi charger. If it doesn’t, then you’ll need to buy a special charger case, and you’ll probably have your choice of either Qi or Powermat.

When you go the aftermarket route, you also have a lot of different choices in terms of what base station you go with.

You can select a flat pad, like the ones that are designed for home and office use, but you’ll find that there are better options out there for automotive applications—like cradles, holsters, and even chargers that are designed to slip into a cup holder.

Each of these options is better for use in a car than a flat pad since it will prevent your phone from sliding around while it’s trying to charge.

Of course, you can always stick with your 12V USB adapter, tangled wires and all, while you wait for the dust to settle, and either Qi, Powermat, or some other challenger to emerge as the clear winner in this particular format war.