1 Aug 22

“Wireless charging will change how we think about mobility”

Wireless charging is now ready to hit the market. That’s the message sent out into the world by Electreon, an Israel-based provider of wireless charging technology, following the completion of a trial featuring, among others, an Iveco bus. Long dismissed as inefficient, wireless charging now seems to have arrived at a point of commercial viability. What that means? No more cables, smaller batteries, greener fleets, say top execs of Iveco and Electreon, in an excluvsive conversation with Fleet Europe. 

It’s not often a high-powered executive in the transport industry quotes Schopenhauer at you, but that’s exactly what Alessandro Bernardini did: “Truth goes through three stages. First, people think it’s ridiculous. Then, they violently oppose it. And finally, they accept it as self-evident,” says the Director of Electrification Technologies at Iveco Group. "I use that quote a lot within our organization."

It’s a statement that resonates well within the whole electrification paradigm. As far as EVs are concerned, governments, companies and the public have now clearly arrived at stage three. But when it comes to wireless charging, most of us are still stuck in stage one. 

Well, not all of us. Iveco, a major truck manufacturer, has partnered with Electreon, an Israel-based specialist in wireless charging. It’s a charging method that does away with cables – an obvious advantage – but which has been criticized in the past for being an inefficient means of power transfer. 

Alessandro, why did Iveco decide to explore wireless charging?

“A few years ago, we did some testing on wireless charging as part of an EU-funded research project. It was a massive failure: a lot of power was used simply to demonstrate the principle, but there was no real possibility of applying it practically. So we’ve been looking at other charging solutions for electric commercial vehicles. But all have their own drawbacks. It seemed like there was no real technological alternative to charging an EV via a standard plugin.”

“But then we came across this solution for wireless charging, and we studied it for some months. We wanted to know if it was practical, easily applicable, and really scalable. This was a challenge for us. Me personally, I was of the opinion that wireless charging simply doesn’t work. But faced with this new evidence, we decided to engage positively with the idea – testing it with a city bus, manufactured by us.”

What were the challenges testing this new type of wireless charging? 

“We decided to test this on an existing vehicle already in operation, because we wanted to move fast. The drawback is that you’re dealing with ‘frozen architecture’, so it wasn’t easy to integrate the new technology needed for this project.” 

What lessons has that taught you for future vehicle models? 

“We now have to deal with the question how to scale up wireless charging. Do we do it as an option, something that can be integrated into the vehicle? Or do we make it a standard, part of the overall vehicle itself?”

“However, on a vehicle level, it’s actually not that much of a challenge. Most of our bus and truck models have different body types anyway. Of course, the real question is much broader than that. Wireless charging will have to be integrated into the overall ecosystem.”

So, are we now in the chicken-and-egg phase of this technology, where we have accepted that it works, but nobody’s using it, simply because it’s not on offer?

“You’re spot on – but I should say that although the technology seems to be working, we’re still in the testing and measuring phase. But there is a chicken-and-egg quality to this, as there is to all new technology. And part of the issue is asking ourselves whether we’re going to be the only ones doing this. Every company wants to make a profit. But to do that, you need mature, standardized, scaleable solutions. But as for the technology itself: it’s ready. 

Oren, what do you think when you hear this quest for standardization? 

Oren Ezer (Co-founder and CEO of Electreon): “I agree with what Alessandro says, but I’d like to add that I believe in evolution rather than revolution. Revolutions in industry are okay if you’re a billionaire and perhaps a bit stupid (laughs). In order to solve the chicken-and-egg problem, we at ElectReon try to find niches where we can add benefit from day one – buses on fixed routes are a good example. You can start by electrifying the terminal, and then start wirelessly charging one bus, then 10, then 20. And then you can start installing the technology in the roads themselves, which will allow you to reduce the size of the battery.”

“Another example are taxis, where you could electrify the area where they wait in line, allowing them to charge while they wait. Or take last-mile deliveries, where the vans drive within certain polygons. If you electrify that area, you allow your drivers to charge up easily. It’s among those early adapters that we must find our customers.”

B.A.: “I agree, but if I just may comment on why we decided to move ahead with wireless charging. Using closed, short routes – say, three km – allowed us to test the principle, and then scale up. For us, it would not have worked in an open-ended traffic setup.”

So, we’re never going to see a situation where every road has charging capabilities?

O.E.: “I believe that will be the case, but perhaps only in 50 years’ time. Ultimately, that is how we want to see vehicles being charged, because it eliminates the need for large batteries. Why? Because we have limited resources. Because we don’t want to end up with billions of big batteries we can’t recycle. That’s not green. Wireless charging can do that: it connects us to the grid, but without wires.”

Why should fleet managers get excited about wireless charging? 

B.A.: “As I mentioned earlier, scalability and standardization are crucial to the success of this technology, because in the long term, they will minimize the investment required. But what I think is key to the success of wireless charging is that it decouples the vehicle from the battery. As we know, the battery is still a big problem: cost, weight, recyclability.” 

EVs are supposed to be more sustainable. But much of the electricity that powers them is still generated from non-renewable energy. Can wireless charging make any difference for the better?

B.A.: “The key point here is that wireless charging allows you to better space out charging times. It becomes easier to charge on the go, not just at the depot. That’s a perfect enabler for renewable energy that’s produced locally.”

O.E.: “If you have a large fleet that’s going electric, you’ll have to understand that recharging is totally different from refuelling. You need a lot of charging infrastructure, and a really good connection to the grid. If you’re going to charge 100 vans overnight, you’ll need 50 KW multiplied by 100, at the rate of 4 hours per charge. That’s challenging. Wireless charging may not be the solution to all your issues, but it can be one of the variety of solutions you need to tackle the transition.”

We recently did a survey among Global Fleet managers, and a large majority didn’t have a private driveway, so they can’t charge at home. Wireless charging on the go is a perfect solution.But, a technical question. Say you’re a taxi driver waiting over a wireless charging station. How long before your taxi is fully charged?

O.E.: “That depends on the amount of energy. If you charge at 20 KWh, and your battery is 40 KW, it would take two hours to charge it up completely.”

A.B.: “But why would you need to charge it fully? You only need to charge it for as you need between charging times.”

O.E.: “Indeed. That’s a good example of how wireless charging will change the way we think about mobility.”

Text: Alison Pittaway

Image: Iveco/Electreon