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Detroit debuts 'road of the future' with wireless electric vehicle charging

Justine Johnson, chief mobility officer with the state of Michigan’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification. (Courtesy)
Justine Johnson, chief mobility officer with the state of Michigan’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification. (Courtesy)

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Drivers will buy 17 million electric vehicles this year, according to the International Energy Agency. That means one in five cars sold worldwide will be EVs.

That’s a lot of cars, and they need a lot of places to charge. Detroit is testing a new way to charge EVs that doesn’t require plugging cars in — just drive on the right strip of road and watch the battery fill up.

Here & Now’s Peter O’Dowd spoke with Bloomberg NEF analyst Ryan Fisher and Justine Johnson, chief mobility officer with the state of Michigan’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification about the future of charging systems and EV sales.

Workers installing a quarter-mile stretch of 14th Street in Detroit that can wirelessly charge vehicles as they drive down it. (Courtesy of MDOT Photo Services)

Questions with Michigan’s Chief Mobility Officer Justine Johnson

Tell us about what people will see if they go to this section of road in Detroit, and what they’ll be able to do if they drive their electric vehicles on it?

“A vehicle will be connected to a smart road. Essentially the road has a wireless inductive charging coil inside of it and the vehicle is communicating with the actual coils underneath the road to receive their charge. So while a vehicle is driving, as long as it has the receiver underneath the vehicle, you charge and you drive at the same time maintaining your charge but also adding some charge range to that as well.”

The plan is to eventually expand this technology to a one-mile loop around Michigan Central, where it could power a shuttle bus that runs from a parking garage to several buildings in the area. And essentially because of this strip, it would never have any downtime because it’s more or less always charging. Is that the kind of use that you imagine for this?

‘‘Yeah, there are so many different opportunities for this. First, you have dynamic charging, that’s while you’re driving your vehicle, your vehicle is charging. And then there’s static charging. So if you’re parking your car at a parking lot, as long as your parking spaces have essentially that same technology there, you can also charge while your parking your car.

“I really think that there’s such a great opportunity, especially around micro-transit, essentially smaller shuttles that might be moving people. I think also for those who are thinking about transitioning their fleets and understanding how these vehicles can hold their range while they’re driving or how they can be charged at a depot.”

Wireless charging coils like this one allow EVs with special receivers to charge their batteries while driving or parking on the road. (Courtesy of MDOT Photo Services)

Do you think that electric vehicles are still the future for carmakers and for the United States?

“I think we will continue to see more automakers look at electric vehicles to be a big priority. It also eliminates this concept of range anxiety that people are having when they’re thinking about what will be their next vehicle purchase. I always tell folks that typically you don’t have anxiety when your gas light comes on because there are gas stations available. The more that we continue to invest in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, the less this conversation will be about range anxiety.”

Questions with Bloomberg NEF’s Ryan Fisher

The Biden administration has a goal of creating a national network of 500,000 publicly available electric vehicle chargers by 2030. Are we anywhere near that?

“In the U.S., what you’ve seen is behind other regions. China’s well out in front installing almost a million public chargers last year. The U.S. is down in the low tens of thousands, and then Europe [is] somewhere in between. And one of the reasons for this is lower EV sales as a whole. Things are moving, but overall they’re a bit stagnant in comparison to Europe.”

Let’s talk in general about the market for EVs. We know it is growing, but sales have really fallen off and demand is slowing. What’s the snapshot of EVs in the U.S.?

“I think the media could say that it’s a bit of a negative sentiment from some of the reality. You can read an article or a headline, and it says EVs are down, everything’s going really bad, but the reality was last year’s EV sales in the U.S. were up over 40% or somewhere around number. Most businesses would be pretty happy with 40% growth this year. We’re still thinking that it’s still going to be double-digit growth, maybe 20 to 30% in our forecast.

“Clearly, interest rates have bitten into not just the EV market but the whole auto sector. If money is expensive to borrow, then fewer people are going to go out there and buy new cars. And also the U.S. as a whole doesn’t have some of the same dynamics as perhaps Europe, where you’ve got maybe stricter fuel economy regulations. But you’ve also got Chinese manufacturers able to come in with the tariffs being slightly lower, which means that they basically got to build those EVs, whereas I think the U.S. automakers have perhaps seen a bit of an opportunity to slow this down.

How much of the slowdown in demand is about people in the U.S. just afraid of not having a place to charge their car that works in public?

“A lot of people in the U.S. don’t understand what happened in Europe, which is that Tesla basically took the connector that all the other automakers had and they went around to all of their superchargers and they changed them to that. So now in Europe, for a few years, you basically had every vehicle on the same connector, whereas Tesla’s dominance in the U.S. meant that they could kind of hold strong, and then they made all the other manufacturers change over. So, as a consumer, you’re kind of like, ‘Well, if I buy this car, I’m having to use some kind of special adapter to go on a network from another automaker. Well, I might wait.’ This technology is changing pretty quickly, and I don’t want to be caught hands down.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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