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Ditch the cable with wireless car charging

Charging an electric car is still too hard. Wireless charging seeks to make it easy.

BMW 530e wireless charging

We assume electric cars have to be plugged in -- it's right in the name of the "plug-in" hybrid, after all -- but if it weren't for plugs and cables, EVs might face a brighter future, sooner. Here's how wireless charging will try to make that happen. 

What's wrong with charging cables?

Charging a car with a cable can be a tedious, messy affair, especially if you charge outdoors in a place with wet or freezing weather. And when you're on the go you have to figure out where the charging locations are and if they have the right cable connector for your car. That's akin to having to find a gas station compatible with your car's country of origin. 

That lack of a single standard is part of the reason too few charging locations have been built. The 170,000 gas stations in the US have pump handles that work on every car, period. That long ago opened the door to a business model that took confidence from ubiquity.

EV charge locations worldwide

Car charging locations, as measured by number of connectors, will break the 1 million mark by the end of 2020, but they all still require a conscious decision and manipulation to connect.

Bloomberg BNEF

Even when you have a reliably available charging location with the right connector, like at home, the process of plugging in adds friction. Think that's trivial? Notice the vast consumer embrace of facial ID to skip a single touch of a phone, or in tapping a phone versus swiping a credit card to pay. Small reductions of friction have vast consumer appeal.

Now playing: Watch this: Wireless car charging on the way

What can wireless charging solve?

Wireless charging has the potential to eliminate many of those frictions, but mostly to eliminate thinking about charging. It just becomes that thing your car does when it's parked.

The almost-final wireless charging standard from the Society of Automotive Engineers (referred to as SAE J2954) may create confidence in carmakers, car owners, and infrastructure managers to embrace the technology. The resulting scale of locations could eliminate the need to strategize where you'll charge, a convenience that liquid fueling boasts already.

That same scale and cognitive ease could reduce the need for EV owners to install an expensive charger at home, further driving down the initial practical cost of an EV. 

And ubiquitous wireless charging could take consumers' minds off the battery range arms race that makes EVs too expensive while offering range that's seldom used. The average US car trip is six miles or less, yet consumers buy EVs as if every day is their summer road trip, because charging is an uncertain experience and automakers have played into the related notion that battery range should be equivalent to tank capacity.

EV battery price trend

EV battery costs are coming down, but much less dramatically than in recent years and the battery still remains a very expensive part of any highly electrified car.

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The wireless charge roadmap

Commercial rollout of J2954-based wireless charging standard is expected this year. BMW has been sampling the tech with consumers in some 530e plug-in hybrids equipped with WiTricity wireless charge technology as well. Hyundai has been testing it as a bookend for automatic parking tech to take two routine driving headaches off the table. Honda, GM and Nissan are also development partners of wireless charge innovator WiTricity.

Research and Markets predicts that wireless EV charging installs will grow from a puny 16 million dollar business currently to a $234 million dollar sector by 2027, with the majority of the early installs still going into homes, and geographically into Europe.

Some inconvenient truths 

For this sea change to take place, carmakers have to embrace the SAE J2954 technology en masse, along with an appetite for its licensing fees. You may have noticed how long it took manufacturers to embrace the Qi wireless charging standard for phones, and that had a built-in base of billions of people. 

Wireless charging won't sweep the market overnight, if it does so at all. That portends a future when carmakers need to build cars with two charging interfaces for many years; One wired, one wireless. 

The installation of ubiquitous wireless charging ground pads will require a lot of construction projects, each with a morass of engineering work, permits, leases, and utility provisioning. But the same could be said for the expansion of the charging infrastructure in general.

Finally, there's Tesla's absence from this technology, preferring to leverage its bet on big batteries and Superchargers. The big automakers may not like it, but Tesla essentially is the electric car industry today and what it does largely sets what consumers perceive as state of the art.

Both the promise and hurdles around wireless car charging are fascinating. Much of the battle will turn on which party can best shape what is perceived as the new normal, with an eye toward making the economics of car charging attractive, not just bearable.