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Utah Business

This new program at Utah State University hopes to make in-road, wireless electric vehicle charging possible for long distance travelers.

In-road, wireless electric vehicle charging could be a reality soon

Imagine: It’s the future, and you’re tootling off from Salt Lake City to California to see Mickey and friends. You’ve charged up your electric vehicle at home before heading out. 

In the olden days, you would have had to stop at a charging station to re-up your battery after about 250 miles. Near Cedar City, you’d tell the kids you’ve got to stop for a while. Then somewhere around Primm, Nevada, you’d have to recharge again.

But it’s the future, and you don’t have to stop. You can keep driving because your car has a receiving pad on the battery that effectively makes an invisible “handshake” with charging pads under the asphalt and concrete. Once in Anaheim, your car continues to charge as you drive over local roads. You’ll probably want to plug in at the hotel before heading home, but otherwise, your car’s charging needs are all handled while you drive.

Pretty nifty, right? 

Spearheading this breakthrough technology is a team of engineers, researchers, and scientists at Utah State University’s National Science Foundation ASPIRE Engineering Research Center. ASPIRE is an acronym for Advancing Sustainability through Powered Infrastructure for Roadway Electrification, and it’s a major initiative with dozens of institutional and corporate partners nationwide led by Center Director Regan Zane, Managing Director Tallis Blalack, and Innovation Director David Christensen.

“Our real mandate is helping us move to a low-cost, ubiquitous charging ecosystem,” Christensen says. “So whatever user, whatever vehicle type—light-duty all the way to heavy-duty—can charge. We’re not there, but we’re making great advancements. Our National Science Foundation Center is the only one working in this conversation space between energy and transportation. The promise in terms of energy benefits, technology benefits, and environmental benefits are great.”

Bumps in the road

We still have a long way to go when it comes to electric vehicle adoption and infrastructure. At the end of 2021, President Biden announced the goal of reaching 50 percent of electric vehicle (EV) sale shares in the US by 2030. However, industry analysts project that number to be realistically about half that. “We’re still just denting the surface. We’re at 7.5 percent to 8 percent on adoption in California, mostly in light-duty sedans,” Christensen says. “Utah is at 2.5 percent adoption—and most of the rest of the nation is closer to us, with an exception on the coast.” 

While Biden’s plan includes the implementation of 500,000 chargers and a path to make electric vehicles more accessible for both local and long-distance trips, all of this underscores one of the biggest hurdles to electric vehicle adoption: range anxiety. 

“We’re not going to go electric fast enough if we don’t have the ability to eliminate range anxiety for people and to be able to have them plug in wherever they live, wherever they work, wherever they want to head,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said during a speech in February.

“We have come to the point when we have an expectation with our transportation. It doesn’t make sense in terms of personal preference or to the economic dynamics to say we just don’t have as much range, or it’s going to take you two hours to charge to get that kind of range,” Christensen says. “If we are going to realize the forecasts as well as the promised benefits in terms of energy, economics, and environment [through mass adoption of electric vehicles], in-motion charging is one of the technologies that helps us solve that range anxiety. It’s a big step forward to realizing those positive impacts.” 

Beyond solving range anxiety, America’s trucking industry remains another barrier to widespread electric vehicle adoption. Heavy freight trucks comprised 16 percent of the US transportation energy use in 2019, Christensen says. On our nation’s 47,000 miles of interstate highways, trucks make up more than 50 percent of the traffic. Seventy percent of US freight is transported by trucks, and 90 percent of air pollution is created near high-density roadways.

Could it be as simple as getting the nation’s carriers to convert all those trucks to electric batteries? “It would be wonderful to electrify a Class 8 trailer because we put a lot of miles on those. We spend a lot of energy on those, and there are a lot of emissions impacts that come from those,” Christensen says. “But to do so in most cases would take a 15,000- to 20,000-pound battery that costs $150,000 to $200,000, which needs to charge at a megawatt to one-and-a-half megawatts at very high charging rates. When you start to look at weight, cost, time-to-charge, things like that, it becomes tough if you’re plugging everything in—not only from the battery side but also from the grid integration side. If we can intelligently take the charge to the point of use, it’s a much more efficient system.”

What about…?

The more we learn, the better in-motion charging sounds. But now other questions come to mind: How soon will this technology be in play? While pilot projects are already underway across the country (and there’s a functioning test track at Utah State University), Christensen estimates that this system will be seen in major corridors within 20 years.

And what about safety? If you have to pull over to fix a tire and it’s raining, could you get electrocuted if unwittingly standing on a charging pad? Or what if there’s a pothole (hello, Utah) and part of the charging pad in the road is exposed? Are drivers in danger?

Christensen says the answer to these questions is a definitive no. “It’s a system where you can build in fail-safes. Embedded in cement and asphalt, the systems are only energized when there’s a vehicle moving over them. That handshake has to happen, and the energy transfer can happen in microseconds. Essentially, the system is turned off until there’s an interaction with the vehicle. And the system would turn off with the detection technologies we have if there’s a foreign object or a live object between that coupling.”

As for costs, Christensen compared relying on longer-range batteries versus in-motion charging: $780 billion a year in batteries for a 500-miles range in 80 percent of all US vehicles, versus $30 billion a year to electrify all interstates with two lanes each direction. In-motion charging could lead to more efficient, smaller-load batteries, he says, as vehicles would no longer need to carry as much energy storage on the actual vehicle—the charge can come from the road. 

“It’s a forward-looking technology, but its day has come. It’s very much right around the corner,” Christensen says.

So hold on, George and Judy Jetson—we might not be whizzing around in flying cars just yet, but sooner than later, we’ll be charging our electric vehicles while we drive. And with the transportation sector currently comprising nearly one-third of greenhouse gas emissions in the US every year, it’ll be nice to zip around and help the planet.