Electric vehicle charging.
  • Researchers at Cornell University are developing technology that can charge an electric car while it's in motion.
  • US highways could embed the roads with metal plates that charge the cars as they drive over them.
  • The project is about five years away from a roll out, but can already power most electric vehicles.
  • See more stories on Business Insider SA's home page.

What if you could charge your electric car while you were driving it?

Researchers out of Cornell University have been working on just that, developing a solution to one of the biggest hurdles to electric car adoption - battery range and charging availability.

Khurram Afridi, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell, is honing technology that would allow drivers to charge their electric vehicle while they are in motion. He has been working on a project for the past seven years that would implant wireless charging infrastructure into US roads.

"Highways would have a charging lane, sort of like a high occupancy lane," Afridi told Insider. "If you were running out of battery you would move into the charging lane. It would be able to identify which car went into the lane and it would later send you a bill."

While it will be about five to ten years before the project could be ready to be rolled out to major roadways, Afridi sees wireless charging as the best way to eliminate driver's fears related to finding charging stations and running out of battery.

Currently, there are about 1.8 million battery-powered cars on US roads, but there are only about 100,000 charging plugs for them at around 41,000 public station locations. President Joe Biden has pledged to build 500,000 new plugs over the next decade, a goal some experts say could be difficult to reach.

A recent study from University of California Davis found that one in five electric car owners switched back to a gas-powered car due to the hassle of needing EV charging stations. Data from JD Power found that anxiety related to an electric car's battery range is a primary limiting factor in the commercial viability of the vehicles.

"The only way people are going to buy electric cars is if they're just as easy to refuel as combustion engines," Afridi said. "If we had this [wireless charging] technology the electric vehicles would have even less limitations than traditional ones."

Wireless charging is not a new phenomenon

The science behind Afridi's project goes back over 100 years to Nikola Tesla, the inventor who used alternating electric fields to power lights without plugging them in. Afridi's technology would embed special metal plates in the road that are connected to a powerline and a high frequency inverter. The plates will create alternating electric fields that attract and repel a pair of matching plates attached to the bottom of the EV.

A sketch of the wireless charging process
Khurram Afridi

In 1986, California tested a wireless charging option with roadway powered cars for its Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways (PATH) program. In recent years, wireless charging for phones has also seen a push from companies like Apple and Samsung. But, overall, wireless charging efforts have fallen flat as the hardware has proven expensive and often unwieldy.

Wireless charging has failed to take off because tech companies have been focusing on magnetic fields, instead of electric ones, Afridi told Insider. Alternating magnetic fields require bulky, expensive hardware and use more energy than they provides.

Charging via electric fields has been mostly overlooked due to the high frequencies it would require and magnetic fields are also easier to generate, according to Afridi. But, the professor has long been interested in pushing technology to its highest potential frequencies, dating back to his work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1987.

"They thought it was not feasible because they did not think of going to the high level of frequencies that I was thinking of," Afridi said. "But, that has always been my area of research. It is really my passion to go to very high frequencies and push the technology to its highest potential frequency."

Afridi and his team developed a wireless power transfer system.
Khurram Afridi

Afridi's team, a group of fellows and researchers at Cornell, has already made several advances and can power vehicles with up to 18 centimeters of clearance from the road, which accounts for most EVs. The group has also created technology that allows the vehicle to gain full power when passing over the charging plates (which would be embedded several meters apart) even if they are not fully aligned.

The biggest hurdles for the project has been finding and creating the components that would be able to conduct the high levels of electricity needed to power the vehicles, as well as electric switches that would be able to operate at the high frequencies required for efficient charging. To date the charging process takes about four to five hours for a full charge of a smaller vehicle like a Nissan Leaf, while larger Teslas would require an even longer charge time, Afridi said.

The infrastructure necessary for the charging lanes would require a massive overhaul of major US roadways, but Afridi told Insider one approach would be to electrify busy highways and major cities first. The metal plates would also be useful for charging at stop signs and traffic lights.

Afridi's group is already working on using its technology to power autonomous forklifts through a partnership with Toyota. While it will be several years before the technology is ready for major roadways, he told Insider the tech will likely first power the forklifts and autonomous robots in manufacturing warehouses.

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