Imagine never having to fill your car with gas, or plug it in, or worry about running out of fuel. Two recent stories appear to be taking us closer to that reality.
First, Volvo announced that it has developed a new type of battery using supercapacitors and carbon fibre. These batteries can be made in large flat pliable panels that can be moulded into the body of the car. The doors, trunk, and hood could become batteries. Volvo demonstrated two prototypes; a trunk cover and a plenum cover (the one that goes across the car at the bottom of the windshield). These battery panels are lighter than the current components, so they can add to the efficiency of the vehicle.
The main questions being asked are about cost, and safety, especially in a collision. Volvo says these will be “cost effective’. Volvo is owned by Chinese carmaker Geely, so they have the powerful combination of Volvo’s technical expertise with Chinese manufacturing capacity. As for safety, Volvo does have the reputation of building the world’s safest cars, and any new technology would obviously have to meet regulatory safety standards, so I cannot imagine that they would issue a press release on any technology whose safety was in doubt.
Supercapacitors are also able to charge and discharge much more quickly than conventional batteries, so plugging in and recharging your electric car may take less time than gassing up.
That is, if you have to plug it in at all. Another growing area is wireless charging for electric vehicles. Wireless chargers have been around for a while, and consist of a charger with a large metal plate over which the vehicle is parked. Electricity is converted into a magnetic field, and a receiver on the bottom of the car converts the magnetic energy back into electricity to charge the batteries (this is a larger version of what happens with a cordless electric toothbrush).
Bombardier and other companies have been developing versions that put the magnets in the roadway to power streetcars. The magnets area activated by a signal from the streetcar, so there is no danger to pedestrians or other vehicles.
Now, Hevo Power is planning to install a more efficient (“resonance-based”) wireless system in New York City that puts the chargers under delivery parking spots on the street, disguised as manhole covers. Drivers can park above the manholes and have their vehicles recharged while they make deliveries.
These developments have huge implications for the future of the automobile. As these technologies are proven and the costs are reduced, we can expect to see them become mainstream. Once city streets are lined with chargers for streetcars, buses and commercial vehicles, we can expect the adoption of these technologies to follow the familiar pattern of government-to-commercial-to-consumer. It would make sense for the cities and utilities to enable passenger cars to receive power from the roads as well. The system would identify the vehicle and charge for the amount of power used. They can vary the rates to encourage driving at different times and locations. Busy streets will cost more than empty ones. This will help pay for the infrastructure and even out the demands on the power grid. Vehicles will no longer need large batteries since they will only have to store enough power to get to the next charging spot. We can expect to see specialized small city vehicles developed to take advantage of these technologies.