Siemens Enters Fragmented Wireless Charging MarketBy Danny King April 28, 2011
Wireless electric-vehicle charging systems aren't just for startups anymore. Technology giant Siemens AG is joining the ranks of smaller outfits such as Massachusetts-based WiTricity and U.K.-based HaloIPT looking to benefit from the expected growth in electric-drive vehicles by developing electric-vehicle charging systems. Siemens presented its wireless EV-charging system at the Hannover Messe technology conference in Germany earlier this month and will start testing it on BMW's ActivE electric vehicles this fall, according to Siemens spokesman Torsten Wolf.
The company hasn't disclosed details on broader production or pricing for the system, which provides 3.6 kilowatts of power and can charge a car at a rate similar to a 220-volt Level 2 charger. Still, the decision by Siemens, Germany's largest engineering company, to invest in such technology illustrates both expectations of a jump in global battery-electric vehicle (BEV) and plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV) sales and concerns that the vehicle-charging process may dissuade potential buyers who may find the process inconvenient.
Worldwide annual revenue from wireless electric-vehicle chargers, which will be negligible this year, will exceed $1 billion in 2019, Pike Research said in a November report. In North America, unit sales of wireless EV chargers will reach about 10,000 in 2014 and increase to more than 132,000 units by the end of the decade, Pike said. "The consumer does not like to handle the electrical cords to plug in," said Philip Gott, managing director at IHS Automotive. "They get dirty and tangled. So this is the answer to that issue."
Siemens, which generated 76 billion euros ($109 billion) in sales for the year ended September 30, joins a handful of smaller technology companies looking to hit it big by developing wireless EV charging systems. Last July, Virginia-based Evatran displayed its Plugless Power system at the Plug-In conference in San Jose, Calif. The units will cost about $3,000 (not including installation) for a wall or tower unit that can be cord-connected to the car. Evatran, a division of transformer maker MTC Transformers, was then planning to charge another $800 prepayment to reserve a parking pad that links wirelessly to the wall or tower unit and cordlessly recharges the EVs battery pack.
Evatran, which is targeting home users, said the devices are compatible with both the Nissan Leaf BEV and Chevrolet Volt PHEV with converters available for the Tesla Roadster and older Toyota RAV4 EVs. The company last month installed its Plugless Power unit at Google's headquarters, where low-speed EVs that are used to take workers and visitors around the search-engine giant's Mountain View, Calif., campus can now be recharged without a cord.
Meanwhile, Watertown, Mass.-based WiTricity Corp. is banking on its relationships with larger companies to take a leadership position in the industry. The company last year started working with Delphi Automotive, General Motors' former autoparts division, on developing a wireless electric-vehicle charging system that uses oscillating magnetic waves between a floor-mounted charging source and a vehicle. The companies have tested the device on a Think City EV. Additionally, Toyota Motor Corp. said this week that it would invest an undisclosed amount in WiTricity and its wireless charging system, noting in a statement that it "believes that resonance wireless charging is suitable for automobiles and aims for its early practical use."
WiTricity and Delphi, which displayed the system at the SAE World Congress in Detroit earlier this month, say the magnetic coupling system is better than the inductive systems used by other wireless charger makers because it can still charge with a less precise parking job and isn't hampered by an ice- or rain-covered parking spot or differing ground clearances. At a transmission rate of 3.3 kilowatts, WiTricity and Delphi say their system will charge a vehicle just as quickly as most residential chargers.
And last October, U.K.-based HaloIPT introduced its so-called Inductive Power Transfer (IPT). That system, which includes a power source that sits on the floor of a garage and a device placed on the bottom of the car that would capture the energy sent from the power source underneath, can transfer more than 3.3 kilowatts. Neither WiTricity/Delphi nor HaloIPT have disclosed when their products would be available to the public or how much they would cost.
Regardless, the companies are hoping the gains in convenience will far offset the need for additional power-capturing devices required to be installed on the vehicles as well as the loss in charging efficiency. Automakers would have to agree to install extra devices on their vehicles, because the transformer and software necessary for a system like Evatran's isn't readily available to the public.
Additionally, there are charging efficiency losses when one goes wireless. Evatran said last year that its system had a 20 percent power loss between the power source and the car battery and was hoping to cut that in half by the time Plugless Power is sold to the public. Siemens' Wolf said that company's system has a 10 percent loss. "One of the problems with any inductive system is the charging efficiency," said David Cole, chairman emeritus at the Center for Automotive Research. "It is hard to beat metal-to-metal contact."
Either way, with few standards in place, a nascent electric-drive market and the fact that the companies making the systems are solidly in their research and development phase, the market is likely to be fragmented for a while. "There are no clear leaders in terms of technologies or companies, no industry-wide specifications or standards for interoperability, and little agreement about the size of the market opportunity and the most promising areas for investment," Pike Research said in its report late last year.
Still, Siemens efforts are a validation of sorts for an inductive technology whose origins go back a century and have long been used with electric transformers. More recently, the technology, which involves using electromagnetic waves to transfer energy between two points, can be found in electric toothbrushes as well as electric stovetops that can boil water in metal pots but are room temperature to the touch. The Siemens' inductive charging system, which the company will start testing this fall, involves a so-called primary coil buried in the ground and another coil attached to the vehicle, with the distance between the two coils varying between three and six inches. Wolf said such a device could be used at taxi stands, where battery-electric cabs could recharge while waiting for a fare.
Siemens found an appropriate partner with BMW. The German automaker in February launched its new "i" sub brand specifically for electric-drive cars, and said this week that it would start leasing its ActivE 1-series battery-electric vehicle to U.S. customers this fall. The sub brand's first two production vehicles - the i3 BEV and i8 plug-in hybrid - are slated for 2013.
Cole, Gott and Wolf all said such wireless charging systems posed little danger for electrocution or fire to their users. Wolf said that if a piece of iron-based metal got in the way, it may heat up a little, but that aluminum posed no danger because it doesn't react to magnetic waves. In fact, Cole went as far as to say a wireless system may be safer because of the lack of connectors or wires.
How much such systems will cost remains to be seen as the companies roll them out to the public. But with about 450,000 wireless chargers estimated to be sold in 2019, Pike's numbers imply that the devices on average will cost about $2,200 by then, or slightly less than the starting price for a Coulomb Technologies connected home-charging station. Additionally, such systems may be a cost saver of sorts by extending the typical life of an EV's battery, said IHS's Gott. "The easier it is to recharge, the more often the battery gets topped up, avoiding deep discharge," said Gott. "Avoiding deep discharge will in turn extend battery life, so this could ultimately be considered a cost-saving technology."