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England exploring electric charging lanes

Dedicated lanes would employ wireless charging technology

Published: August 19, 2015, 3:00 AM
Updated: April 29, 2018, 1:45 PM

Highways England EV charging lanes

Imagine being able to drive your electric vehicle (EV) for hundreds of km without having to stop for every 60 km or so in order to recharge the batteries, or even having to leave your car plugged in all day in a parking spot so you can get back home at the end of the work day.

As electric cars become ubiquitous, technologies are being researched to make driving the vehicle less intrusive in the owner’s daily lives, by increasing driving distances and making charging easier and/or quicker.

One of the most promising directions in recent years is wireless charging, mostly in the form of parking spots with an electromagnetic pad allowing drivers of electric vehicles to park and attend to whatever they want (lunch at a restaurant, for example, or a 15 minute rest stop on the highway) without spending time running cables.

Now comes word that England is experimenting with dedicated highway lanes that use the wireless technology to charge EVs as they are moving.

Highways England wireless charging schematic

“The potential to recharge low emission vehicles on the move offers exciting possibilities. As this study shows, we continue to explore options on how to improve journeys and make low-emission vehicles accessible to families and businesses,” said British Transport Minister Andrew Jones. “The government is already committing £500 million (more than $1 billion Canadian) over the next five years to keep Britain at the forefront of this technology, which will help boost jobs and growth in the sector.”

Highways England has announced an 18-month trial, following the procurement of contractors to build the infrastructure and equip vehicles to work with the road hardware. The trial is slated to take place on private roads before it is applied to public roadways (if the trial is deemed successful).

“Vehicle technologies are advancing at an ever increasing pace and we’re committed to supporting the growth of ultra-low emissions vehicles on our England’s motorways and major A roads,” said Highways England Chief Highways Engineer Mike Wilson. “The off road trials (away from public roads) of wireless power technology will help to create a more sustainable road network for England and open up new opportunities for businesses that transport goods across the country.”

Neither the technology nor the application is new, with South Korea already using a 12-km stretch of road to charge electric busses as they pass over it.

Nissan suggested back in 2009 that wireless charging technology (which was then just starting for mobile devices and being considered for parked electric vehicles) might be expanded to driving lanes. At the time, as reported in The Guardian almost exactly six years ago, Nissan considered the project scientifically possible but perhaps not feasible.

And long before that, there was a US patent (filed back in 1996) for inductive charging of electric vehicles in motion, which involved the electromagnetic field running down the centre of a lane and vehicles equipped with undercarriage coils. That patent even included a UPC-based billing proposal working in a manner similar to today’s automatic road toll collection.

That’s important because cost may ultimately be the factor that renders the project unworkable, say analysts, so generating revenue may be a way to recoup the costs of building the infrastructure.

Regardless of whether it proceeds with the project, Highways England is committing to installing charging stations every 20 miles (32 km) along major roads to allow electric vehicles to plan longer journeys.

The other stumbling block to the electric lane project is that battery technology is advancing rapidly, so the EV’s ability to travel longer distances will mean charging points can be set farther apart.

Still, the time it takes to recharge a vehicle remains a constant with today’s materials, so charging a larger capacity battery, which allows the vehicle to go longer distances, may be unworkable if the vehicle has to be off the road for an extended period of time in order to have the ability to travel hundreds of km.

Charging on the run would keep the batteries “topped up” so the downtime for charging would be reduced.