Wirelessly Charging Roadways Could Mean Charger Free EVs... Eventually

We’re still at least a decade away, but it’s going to be great. Maybe

You’re driving cross-country, and you notice your vehicle’s state-of-charge has dipped below 15-percent. Instead of firing up an app on your phone to locate a charging station, you tell your car to start charging, and a familiar glow indicates that the battery is accepting current. 

That’s the dream and potential future of on-road wireless charging. Special roads are outfitted with charging capabilities, and vehicles that support the system are juiced up without ever leaving the road. It would eliminate one of the largest pain points surrounding EVs: the time it takes to charge on long road trips. 

2021 Volkswagon ID.4 AWD Pro S with Gradient Package

Volkswagon

If and when it happens, it’ll be outstanding. But like solid-state batteries, it’s going to be a while before it comes to fruition. 

How It Works

The preferred method to charge vehicles while on the go is pretty much the same technology used to wirelessly charge your smartphone. Inductive charging uses two coils, one in the ground and one in the vehicle. The road-based coil would be a transformer that creates a magnetic field that when coupled with the coil in the vehicle would create electricity that charges the vehicle’s battery. 

One of the issues with this method is that it works better the closer the coils are to one another. EV cars with less ground clearance would charge quicker than, say, an EV or truck that’s higher off the ground. Plus, the ferrite needed for the magnetic field is brittle and could break down in roads. 

Another wireless system uses high-frequency electric fields instead of magnets and is being researched at Cornell. It’s likely it might be cheaper to deploy than the magnetic system but would require quite a high voltage level to actually work. 

And finally, there’s the rail method. An electrified metal strip is placed into the roadway, and an arm lowers an element down to ride along the rail to transfer power back to the battery. This type of road was installed in Sweden back in 2018, and while it makes sense, it also introduces a ton of issues. For example, what happens when something is in the road and, of course, now every car needs a mechanism that lowers what is essentially a charging pad down to the road. 

Regardless of how it happens, vehicles will have to be outfitted with systems that support road charging, and automakers are going to wait and see which one wins before committing long-term to any particular technology. 

When Will It Happen

Like all new technologies that have yet to find a solid solution, this one is tougher to answer. The Cornell researchers believe their high-frequency electrified road will be ready in about five to 10 years.

Frankly, when researchers give you a time frame, it's best to look at the higher number. Not only does it have to prove out that it works, it then needs to be certified safe for public roadways, which involves a lot of agencies having a bunch of meetings and, of course, at least one person asking us to "think about the children" as we embark on putting electricity into the asphalt. 

An aerial view of vehicles driving at sunrise on I-15 in Barstow, California

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Once that's all complete, we have to deal with regional and state transportation authorities. Before a road is transformed, these government entities will likely want to make sure the road needs major reconstruction. Outside of research and opportunities for politicians and corporations to garner goodwill, it's highly unlikely a good road will be torn up and replaced. Even if it's only a strip or series of holes, it's a huge undertaking that also requires power. Lots of power. 

Also, road construction is extremely expensive. According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, to build a mile of four-lane highway asphalt costs between $4 million and $10 million a mile. Even though it's slightly cheaper to transform a road, it's still a huge economic undertaking. 

Throw all those issues together, and outside of research and small projects, it's probably going to be sometime in the 2030s before you can cruise on a major interstate without worrying about pulling over to charge your EV. 

When It Hopefully Does Happen

When (or if) it does happen, don’t expect it to be free, but also don’t expect it to be haphazardly implemented. Well, initially, it’ll be a bit of a mess because everything new has growing pains. But eventually it’s likely vehicles will be assigned individual accounts, sort of how we have plug-and-charge with Electrify America charging stations and Volkswagen and Ford EVs. As a car initiates it’s on-road charging, its account is well charged. 

The timeline for all of this to happen will be in parallel with better battery technology, which includes denser packs and quicker charging times. And maybe, just maybe, solid state batteries. At that point, EVs will have one up on gas-powered vehicles that need to pull over to fill up. 

"If and when it happens, it’ll be outstanding. But like solid-state batteries, it’s going to be a while before it comes to fruition."

To get it all started, though, there has to be the political will to make it happen, which is why Michigan Gretchen Whitmer’s announcement to build a wireless-charging roadway in that state is so important. Research can only get us so far, so it’s up to the government to lead the charge on this. And right now, support for EVs, in general, is scattered, to say the least.

Yet, for now, we can still dream about this magical piece of interstate that charges our vehicles while we drive. An EV future where you don’t have to pull over on a long road trip for electricity sounds outstanding. We’ll be free to drive as far as we want uninterrupted. Well, except when nature calls or you see a sign for the world’s largest David Bowie Museum, complete with the guitar he used to play Space Oddity on British TV. 

You have to pull over for that.

Want to know more about EVs? We have a whole section dedicated to electric vehicles!

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