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For Qualcomm, a new wireless standard (with wheels)

For Qualcomm, a new wireless standard (with wheels)

Posting in Design

We sit down with Qualcomm's Andrew Gilbert to talk about the future of wireless charging for electric vehicles.

Andrew Gilbert is the executive vice president for Qualcomm's European Innovation Development group. Next week, at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the company will formally announce plans to deploy wireless electric vehicle charging trials in London through its recently acquired HaloIPT arm.

We sat down with Gilbert to discuss his company's role in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, why wireless charging is the next big thing and cultural differences with the automotive industry.

SP: Qualcomm is best known as a player in the wireless electronics sector. How did it come to enter the automotive industry?

AG: We're very strong on the innovation side. Fundamentally, we're an engineering company. We're very well known for the chip manufacturing, chip supply side. That funds a lot of R&D, and a third of it goes to programs that are not revenue-bearing. We get to play around with a lot of cool stuff. Some of that goes to nothing and some of that comes to something.

Some years ago, we started playing around with wireless power. The initial interest was wireless low-power charging for phones and consumer electronics. It could make a significant difference to the way you use a phone. We did a load of work on that, made some breakthroughs, and you're seeing some of that come to market now. A lot of those principles apply to high-power charging, potentially for electric vehicles. We kicked off a side project in Europe to produce a prototype -- small, lightweight, efficient -- to transfer high-power, multiple kilowatts. We realized there was a lot of opportunity to transform the electric vehicle market.

Paul [Jacobs], our CEO, had a lot of interest in electric vehicles. He was already serving on the board of A123 [Systems], the battery manufacturer. We realized that our business model is quite well-placed to handle this problem. Our core business is helping solve the whole value chain of problems that goes to getting a new wireless technology to market. Our whole approach to licensing allows us to create a horizontal environment to allow companies to collaborate to get a solution out there. In mobile, we get paid royalties -- a little of a lot, if you will. That fuels and funds the $2.5 billion on R&D, but it incentivizes us to solve all the problems in that value chain. We're vested in making sure it really is adopted by the consumer.

If you think about the issue with electric vehicles and wireless charging of them, it's a similar kind of thing -- solving a complex issue with many partners that need to work collaboratively to solve the myriad issues we're going to uncover.

SP: Wireless charging of the family car is a very Jetsons-like vision, but the technology exists today. How far along is it?

AG: This is a hundred-year-old technology that goes back to Nikola Tesla; the fundamentals have been around awhile. I looked around and found one company ahead of everyone else, out of the University of Auckland, called HaloIPT. It had assembled a large patent portfolio around the world. So we acquired all of its assets, and that really helped us consolidate our position in the market. It helped us accelerate the commercial readiness and create a combined system that solves two critical issues: ease of use and efficiency. We now have a system that's very efficient -- the holy grail is 90 percent plus -- and we've had a pilot project going on in the U.K. for almost a year.

The question is, can you get the power across [the air] efficiently? If you can't, it increases the time to charge and you have to dissipate a lot of heat. Any lack of efficiency manifests itself as heat. Heat is a waste, and also a burden to the equipment that has to deal with it. A lot of people have been able to get power across an air gap for a long period of time, or if they've done it efficiently, they're done it with huge [equipment].

The thing about all of us as consumers is that we're very difficult to change behavior. It's very tough to get us to do something completely new. The idea of going to a gas station, plugging in and driving for 10 hours…if you've got a wireless transfer system, you have to start fitting cameras and navigation guides and all these new things [to help align the vehicle for maximum charging efficiency] that are a new behavior. The breakthrough the team has made is a system that is incredibly tolerant of mis-alignment. An SUV, a regular car, a truck -- the ride heights are all different. And I don't know about you, but I'm terrible at parking. All of this translates to park, and charge. That's it.

We have that technology today; it's pre-commercial. We believe we've reached the tipping point to something that can reach mass market adoption.

The purpose here is to bring the technology to reality. What are the things that we can discover as we go through this trial? Qualcomm's model is that we are not manufacturing products. Our focus is on licensing technology to allow other people to collaborate and invent on top of that do that everybody can build on a single standard, so that everybody can park in any parking space.

SP: Is the automotive industry different from the consumer electronics one?

AG: People think that the mobile phone business changes overnight. From a device point of view, that's the case. But it takes a decade to get market adoption of a new mobile standard. That's a long process. You need to agree to standards, implement them…assign a spectrum, gain adoption, roll it out nationwide. If you make a handset decision, you're stuck with it for a decade or more -- GSM, for example. It's a long-term commitment.

In discussions with the automotive industry, this is somewhat new for them. They're used to performance and meeting specifications, but not necessarily the experience of interoperability. They're used to getting the gas nozzle into the car, but not much else.

We've been at the edges of the automotive industry for quite some time. We've been involved in the design of services for tracking high-value vehicles. We partnered with General Motors with OnStar, and are a big supplier for modules to get Wi-Fi in the car.

The connectedness of the vehicle and the smartphone -- we've proposed for a long time that individuals would use their device to control their digital lifestyle. One is in personal energy management. The ability for your car to talk to the smart grid and find viable charging spots, pricing and so forth, that's a great thing. If you couple that with Qualcomm Atheros, they do power lines, that all kind of ties in.

For those of us that believe that wireless offers so much more…if you mobilize a pre-existing application, it just makes it so much more accessible. That isn't just constrained by direct connections like voice and broadband data. If you mobilize wireless charging of cars, the adoption [curve] is going to be different -- the last thing consumers want to do is plug anything in. It removes a step they have to take today.

If you apply that to the notion of the Internet of Everything, it's going to make a fundamental difference to the way we behave. One thing we recently announced was about wireless healthcare -- the notion to connect yourself wirelessly to [manage] your health is huge. We're all dealing with increasing costs and the aging medical population. This technology, especially wireless technology, frees us from that problem.

We're very well-known, but our business model allows everyone to exploit that knowledge and apply it to their field without having to reinvent it. That's pretty exciting as an accelerator.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure