Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.
The high-tech highways just might change the game for EV road trips.
When the Roman poet Catullus wrote about devouring the road, he meant it as a metaphor for journeying. The prospect of physically extracting energy from the roadway may just become a reality, though, if the U.K. government pulls off the test run of a promising new tool.
Off-road trials of “dynamic wireless power transfer” technology are expected to start later this year and run for 18 months, Highways England and Transport Minister Andrew Jones announced this week. The government will install the devices under test roads and in vehicles, and determine if the charging could work on Britain’s busiest roadways. Mobile charging would solve one of the biggest hurdles to electric vehicle use—staying charged on long drives.
The U.K. has already tested a bunch of different approaches to this technology and identified versions that work and are ready to manufacture. In basic terms, the system has power lines connected to coils under the surface of a road, which then transmit the electricity through the air to a receiver coil in a car. Simply driving down the stretch of road in a properly-equipped electric or hybrid-electric vehicle will power up the batteries.
The power transfer could potentially work for all types of vehicles, the report notes, and since it goes under the road, it won’t require building any contraptions above ground that could increase risks of collision or electric shock. The wireless transfer is less cluttered and invasive than the overhead cables used for city trains, trolleys, and a prototype zero-emission highway in L.A.
If this works for the highways of Britain, it just might change the game for long-distance EV travel. A full charge of BMW’s i3, for instance, lasts 81 miles; it’s 84 miles for the Nissan Leaf and 38 miles gas free for the Chevy Volt. Those ranges are enough to cover most daily commutes, but insufficient for long road trips. Stopping for hours to charge up on the side of a highway isn’t going to make you feel much better about saving the earth. Picking up a charge without stopping, though, is one of the cooler things you could ask for from automotive refueling practices.
Charging roads could pair well with another developing technology: street surfaces that generate their own power with solar panels. The Dutch SolaRoad bike path does that for a few hundred feet; in the U.S., Solar Roadways technology is planning for tests in sidewalks and parking lots in Idaho. Perhaps the smart roads of the future will not just make their own energy from the sun but transmit it wirelessly to a zippy fleet of EVs.