Long-Term Review: We Dump the Plug to See if Wireless Charging Really is the Future

Back when GM’s much-missed EV1, the original RAV4 EV and the Ford Ranger EV roamed the streets, plugging your electric car in to charge meant pushing a small, sealed inductive charging paddle into the front of the vehicle. Unlike the charging ports found on today’s electric cars, there was no mechanical connection between the circuits on the car and the circuits on the charging paddle.

Charging was wireless — if over a few millimeters — using inductive charging technology.

Rick Durst of Portland General Electric shows us PGE's own Plugless Power charging system.

Since then, we’ve ignored wireless charging for the most part, thanks to the increased complexity of a wireless inductive charging circuit. Instead, the J1772 charge standard and the various DC quick charging standards found on today’s electric cars rely on a physical mechanical connection between electrical conductors to feed power from the charging station into the vehicle. More energy efficient and simple to use, conductive charging has won the battle, at least for now.

But as we’ve seen at the recent 2015 Toyko Motor Show, inductive charging — where an electric car is parked over a special charging pad on the ground in order to wirelessly transmit power to a vehicle without wires — is making something of a comeback. Or at least, it’s capturing the imagination of automakers who want to promote a vision of the future where forgetting to plug your car in is a thing of the past. A future where simply parking your car is enough to start it charging, or a time when simply driving along a special lane on the road can recharge your battery while you drive.

The car closest to you doesn't plug-in. It charges without wires.

The car closest to you doesn’t plug-in. It charges without wires.

At the moment, those scenarios might seem like impossible fiction. But there’s already a wireless charging system in production that you can buy and fit to your car today. So, in the interests of finding out what it’s really like to live with an electric car you don’t have to plug in, we’re about to spend six months with a wirelessly-charging Nissan LEAF, courtesy of Evatran’s Plugless Power system.

For those unfamiliar with Evatran, it produces and markets a 3.3 kilowatt wireless Level 2 inductive charging system which can currently be retrofitted to both the Nissan LEAF and first-generation Chevrolet Volt electric cars. Developed and tested as part of the Apollo Program wireless charging trail in 2012 and 2013, the Plugless Power wireless charging system logged over 15,000 hours of wireless charging before entering the market as a commercial product.

The wireless receiver fits on the underside of the car, and is paired with the wireless inductive transmitter located on the floor.

The wireless receiver fits on the underside of the car, and is paired with the wireless inductive transmitter located on the floor.

Using the system is pretty simple. Drive a car fitted with the inductive charging system into a parking space with the wireless charging pad fitted on the floor, and a light box on the wall

Today, both corporate fleet and private individuals have opted to install the system, which retails for $1,260 for first-generation Chevrolet Volt customers and $1,540 for Nissan LEAF customers. The charging station itself can be installed anywhere a standard Level 2 charging station can be fitted, with plug and play installation now available. The inductive charging plate meanwhile is fitted on the underside of a customer’s car by a local electric vehicle specialist. Designed to operate alongside the vehicle’s original conductive charging port, the system automatically switches between wireless and conductive charging, letting you charge with a conductive charger if there’s no wireless charging system present, or using the wireless charging system if there’s one available.

In the coming months we’ll be featuring the Plugless Power system in future articles, detailing the installation process, documenting its reliability and finding out from Plugless Power customers how the system performs over the long term. At the end of the six months, we’ll give you our final judgement on the system and wireless charging in general.

The transmitter sends power wirelessly via electromagnetic induction to the car.

The transmitter sends power wirelessly via electromagnetic induction to the car.

So far, we’ve witnessed the Plugless Power setup first hand courtesy of a wireless-charging Nissan LEAF owned and operated by Portland General Electric. We’ll be sharing our experience of that car in a coming article.

That said, right now, we’ll admit that we’re a little skeptical of wireless charging systems, especially when it takes so little time to physically plug a charging cable in. But since many car companies are looking forward to the day when wireless inductive charging becomes the norm, we think it’s time to test the benefits and challenges of wireless charging first hand.

And of course, we’ll be sharing it all with you.

In the meantime, if you have any questions about the wireless charging system we’ll be testing for the next six months or so, be sure to leave them in the Comments below.

Featured Image: Portland General Electric.


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