Cutting the cord: GM tests wireless car chargers for EVs, self-driving cars

Wireless charging will enable self-driving cars to charge themselves by pulling into a parking spot

wireless charging Chevy self-driving EV

General Motors is working with a wireless charging startup to test a floor pad that will allow electric vehicle (EV) drivers to cut the cable and pull into a parking space or garage to charge their car.

The automaker is working with Watertown, Mass.-based WiTricity to test the company's Drive 11 park and charge system prototype.

GM is focused on testing the floor pad prototype that's capable of wirelessly charging at 7.7 kilowatt (KW) and 11KW charge rates (11KW is the typical maximum for power that can be drawn in a home). The pad can work with standard EVs and those with extended range capabilities, such as an auxiliary battery unit.

wireless charging Chevy self-driving WiTricity

A Chevy Volt parked atop a WiTricity charging pad.

"Wireless charging is a technology that our customers have told us they are interested in," Pamela Fletcher, GM executive chief engineer for electrified vehicles, said in a statement. "By testing the WiTricity prototype system, we can ensure that wireless charging systems will comply with proposed industry standards, which benefit the entire industry and consumers."

Along with being a standalone, movable pad, the Drive 11 system can be embedded beneath concrete or asphalt so that it's not visible atop a parking space or in a garage.

WiTricity also claims the charging pad is as efficient as a plug-in charger.

WiTricity CEO Alex Gruzen said the two charging levels available with the pad correspond with different vehicle battery capacities and their charging needs.

For example, he said, a plug-in hybrid with a smaller battery may not need as much charging power as a pure battery electric vehicle. The SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) standard effort is defining specific power levels to ensure interoperability.

"Our auto manufacturer will decide what level system to install in the car. We have customers already targeting 3.7KW, 7.7KW and 11KW solutions depending on the vehicle type," Gruzen stated in an email to Computerworld.

WiTricity is also working with Tunable Matching Network (TMN) technology to develop interoperable capabilities for its wireless charging for electric and autonomous vehicles. TMN technology allows the wireless charging system to automatically optimize energy transfer between the ground and the vehicle in a wide range of real-world operating conditions, including parking misalignment, differing vehicle ground clearance and varying battery voltage conditions.

This flexibility enables wirelessly charged vehicles to work more easily with standards-based charging sources made by different automakers, Tier 1 suppliers and infrastructure suppliers.

wireless charging GM Chevy Volt self-driving WiTricity

A Chevy Volt is parked atop a WiTricity wireless charging pad. GM is testing the floor pad prototype capable of wirelessly charging at 7.7KW and 11KW charge rates.

In addition to GM, WiTricity has technology licensing agreements with other major automakers, such as Toyota, and Tier 1 parts suppliers, such as Delphi, TDK, IHI and BRUSA, to bring its wireless EV charging to production.

The convenience of wireless charging goes beyond not having to plug a cable into an EV, Gruzen said. The technology can be used for both plug-in hybrids and pure EVs.

"As many as 70% of [plug-in hybrid EV] customers are not bothering to plug in because they have the option to just use gas. That is a waste of the potential to dramatically reduce carbon footprint," Gruzen said. "We want to make charging seamless and never have a customer postpone charging, or arrive to a car in the morning that they forgot to plug in."

Additionally, charging pads would allow self-driving vehicles, including those being tested by ride hailing services such as Uber, to charge themselves by simply pulling into a parking spot, which is "perhaps the most compelling reason," Gruzen added.

"This future cannot be realized without wireless charging. Fleets of shared vehicles must have wireless charging -- there is no one to plug them in," he said. "We see broad availability of wireless charging and autonomous vehicles converging in the next few years."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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