DETROIT — Automakers are rushing to add wireless charging to their vehicles.
Apps and Bluetooth quickly suck the battery juice out of smartphones, and automakers are responding with a more convenient method to charge these devices.
Wireless charging sounds attractive — no long cords snaking across the car's console from a smartphone to a USB port in the instrument panel. Instead, the smartphone simply is placed on a charging pad located on top of the center armrest, such as in the 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe, and as if by magic, the device is charged.
But a closer look reveals most smartphones don't have wireless charging capability, and those that do may not be compatible with an automaker's wireless charging system. The majority of smartphone owners likely will need to purchase a new phone if they want to use wireless charging.
The issue: There are two different wireless charging protocols, known as Qi and PMA. Some smartphones are engineered to charge using Qi, the others PMA. Most automakers are engineering their wireless charging system to use either Qi or PMA in their cars, not both. So while a compatible smartphone will work in one car, it will not work in another if that automaker selected the other protocol.
For car buyers the bottom line is that although a handful of smartphone owners might be able to purchase an adapter from their carrier or a big-box store, most smartphone owners will need a new phone if wireless charging is important.
Today, the number of vehicles that offer wireless charging globally "is pretty small," Mark Boyadjis, senior analyst and manager at IHS Automotive, told Edmunds. But that will soon change.
"We are forecasting pretty significant growth over the long term," he said.
The rush to add wireless charging is fueled by Bluetooth and such navigation apps as Google Maps and Waze, which use a lot of smartphone battery power. However, no big breakthrough is expected to extend battery life in the coming years, and automakers expect most of the future smartphones to likely have wireless charging capability.
John McLaughlin, national cross carline planning manager at Toyota Motor Sales, told Edmunds "we are recognizing that cellphone use in the car is increasing whether you are listening to music, making phone calls or using apps. Bluetooth will drain your battery fairly quickly so we are looking for convenient ways to charge the devices easily for the customer.
"Of course, you can always plug it in to the USB and in some cases you may have to for certain apps, but that is kind of an inconvenience for customers," he said.
Elizabeth Hayes, General Motors' engineering manager for supplemental body electronics, told Edmunds a growing number of buyers have placed wireless charging high on their priority list when it comes to selecting their next car.
"The people who are very tech savvy and have wireless chargers at home love the feature," Hayes said. GM is the only automaker that offers technology to recharge both Qi and PMA protocols, she added. Qi is the most popular protocol in the industry.
Wireless charging is simple to use. A compatible smartphone is placed on a pad that is engineered for inductive charging, and the device is charged. The pad may be located in or on the car's center console or in an area below the audio or heating/conditioning controls. The smartphone must be in constant contact with the pad to recharge. If the car hits a pothole or suddenly stops, and the smartphone falls to the floor, charging ceases.
Hayes said the challenge for automakers is to engineer a wireless pad that can hold a wide range of smartphone sizes. Recently, many cellphone users have abandoned small phones for smartphones with larger screens. In addition, interior designers need to carve out a large, convenient location for the pad.
Of course, adding wireless charging capability doesn't guarantee consumers will embrace the technology, Boyadjis said. There are other hurdles.
For example, Boyadjis said there's the issue of perceived value — for many cars it is an option.
For example, wireless charging is available on some 2015 Toyota Camry models. However, an $845 convenience package is required on the Camry XSE model before wireless charging can be added, which is another $75.
Wireless charging also is available on selected 2015 Toyota Avalon and Prius models as well as the Lexus NX. McLaughlin said the feature will be expanded to the 2016 Toyota Land Cruiser, Mirai fuel cell vehicle, Prius Plug-In hybrid, Tacoma; and 2016 Lexus LX 570 and RX 350.
At GM, the charging feature is standard on the 2015 Cadillac Escalade line and a few other models, and optional on others. Today, it is also available on the 2015 Cadillac ATS, CTS; Chevrolet Tahoe, Suburban; and GMC Yukon, Yukon XL. She said the feature will be offered on the 2016 Chevrolet Camaro, Impala, Malibu, Silverado, Volt; Cadillac CT6, ELR, XTS; and 2017 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. The automaker plans to eventually offer wireless charging on all models, Hayes said.
But Boyadjis asks, will car buyers order wireless charging for their next car and also buy a new smartphone, or will they decide the added expense isn't worth it for a feature that may be used infrequently?
Then there is the reliability issue, Boyadjis said.
"I have been in four cars that had wireless charging and I have not gotten it to work on a single one," Boyadjis said. "Some of it was because I didn't have a good enough phone, but others I was really shocked because I know the phone has wireless charging. It just didn't work, I don't know why."
Wireless charging is optional on the 2015 Jeep Cherokee Limited and Jeep Cherokee Altitude. The Qi protocol is used.
Car buyers can check with their carrier to determine what smartphones are compatible with their car's wireless charging system. GM offers a Web site that lists compatible cellphones with the automaker's wireless charging systems.
Edmunds says: Dealers can help car shoppers to determine if wireless charging is a good fit for their needs.