Intelligent Energy

Two small steps toward eliminating range anxiety

Posting in Cities

London's HaloIPT signs manufacturing partners for its wireless charging pads - the same sort it is providing to Rolls Royce and other electric car makers.

The ultimate cure for the “range anxiety” that afflicts electric car drivers worried they’ll run out of juice mid-trip could come when road-embedded wireless charging strips power up cars as they motor down the highway.

HaloIPT, a London-based developer of cable-free charging systems, took a small step in that direction yesterday, as it signed an agreement with another UK company, Chargemaster plc, to manufacture HaloIPT’s wireless transmitting pads.

On the surface, the deal is not huge- Chargemaster will make “dozens” of charging pads, according to a joint press release. But the “strategic partnership” is significant because it calls for Chargemaster to help develop and deploy a wireless charging infrastructure and billing system in Britain.

Chargemaster is already the largest provider of cabled charging bays in the UK, where it has installed posts in parking lots, supermarkets and other public spaces. It has done the same across Europe, where it has about 500 charging posts. It should be a key ally for HaloIPT, a company owned by international engineering firm Arup, by the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and by Australian venture capital firm Trans-Tasman Commercialization.

For larger upfront numbers, HaloIPT also announced a second partnership, calling for San Francisco-based lithium ion battery maker Evida Power to explore the possibility of making 40,000 wireless charging systems over a 5-year period for a car manufacturer that neither HaloIPT nor Evida would name publicly.

In March, Evida agreed to a $250 million deal to provide 50,000 battery packs over 5 years to German-French electric carmaker Mia. Neither HaloIPT nor Evida said whether Mia is the target customer for the wireless system. HaloIPT announced the estimated €80 million ($113 million) deal with Evida’s Coventry, England office. Both companies said the unnamed carmaker would offer the wireless system as an option on one of its vehicles.

The two deals do not specifically call for “on-the-go” charging systems, a concept that HaloIPT will start trialling on a 100-meter track at the University of Auckland within a year, and on a larger scale at a UK motor industry proving ground around September 2012. HaloIPT CEO Anthony Thomson believes that the first commercial use of on-the-go charging will be at taxi stands and bus stations, rather than on the highway.

But Thomson notes that stationary wireless charging –presumably the focus of yesterday’s announcements - should itself help assure that people make it to their destination because the no-fuss, no-muss cable-free charging will make them more likely to power up. In a virtuous circle, that, in turn, will permit smaller batteries and lighter, less expensive cars. It should also extend the lifetime of batteries because car owners will tend to charge before batteries fall to low levels at which charging causes more damage, he notes.

And because car owners won’t have to remember or bother to handle cables, they will also be more likely to transmit electricity to grids when not using their vehicles, a key element of many smart grid schemes, Thomson adds.

The billing options are also intriguing. Thomson imagines that vehicle owners could charge up at public places like supermarkets and pay via a monthly statement on their utility bill.

Like other wireless charging systems, HaloIPT’s fundamentally runs on the same “inductive power transfer” (that’s the “IPT”) that wirelessly powers up toothbrushes and gadgets like cell phones. An electricity-connected, bath mat-sized pad on the ground contains a coil that magnetically couples with a similar-sized pad and coil mounted on the underbelly of the car. The receiving pad then feeds the car’s battery.

HaloIPT has developed a 3-kilowatt system that can charge a 15-kilowatt hour battery in about 5 hours. It has also developed a 7-kilowatt system, and is working on a larger system that will operate somewhere between 18 and 25 kilowatts. It licenses its technology from UniServices, a University of Auckland commercial subsidiary that co-owns the company.

Thomson claims to be ahead of his wireless charging competitors. Those include MIT spin-off WiTricity; German industrial giant Siemens; two smaller German firms Conductix-Wampfler, and VAHLE; and South Korea’s Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Google has also demonstrated the technology.

HaloIPT is certainly on a roll. In March, BMW’s Rolls Royce division announced that it would include the technology on an experimental electric version of the Rolls Royce Phantom luxury vehicle. The UK’s Electric Car Corp has also retrofitted a handful of small Citroen C1 cars with HaloIPT technology. And London’s city government has agreed to install wireless pads on four of its fleet cars, as part of its plans to deploy 1300 charging posts by 2013.

Prices will have to decline. The 3-kilowatt system today costs between £2,000 ($3,200) and £3,000 ($4,830), and the 7-kilowatt version around £4,000 ($6,4000) or £5,000 ($8,000).

But HaloIPT is inching closer to broadly commercializing a concept first demonstrated over 100 years ago by inventor and physicist Nikola Tesla, who wanted to power homes and businesses through his own form of long distance wireless transmission. If HaloIPT gets there first, it would win the race down the road back to the future. And it would spare some motoring anxiety at the same time.

Photos: Above, HaloIPT. Cover, Thomas Graham/Arup

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure