Who Killed the Electric Highway?
Last year the British government promised a world-first: the imminent trial of cutting edge “electric highways” that would wirelessly recharge your electric vehicle (EV) as you drive. Britain’s roads were about to turn into a giant Scalextric set – or offer the tantalising possibility of doing so – meaning a potential end to EV “range anxiety”.
Off-road trials of the dynamic wireless power transfer (DWPT) technology would take place “later this year”, Transport Minister Andrew Jones MP and Highways England claimed in a joint August 2015 press release that was met with excitement.
Energy storage and the electrification of transport are big stories: Chicago’s Navigant Research estimates global EV revenue to grow nearly 250% by 2025. EV sales were up 44% in the first half of the year and most major EV manufacturers have started to build wireless charging capabilities into their vehicles.
Public infrastructure is critical to wider EV uptake. And “electric highways” have the potential to be a game-changer. The principle behind them is straightforward: primary electric coils are built into the road and connected to the grid via a roadside unit. When an EV drives over them its onboard sensors detect the opportunity to charge and the vehicle wirelessly mainlines voltage via a secondary coil, using inductive charging.
So, one year on, how did the trials go?
The Trials, Unplugged
It was surprisingly hard to find out. Andrew Jones MP had claimed that the government was “committing £500 million… to keep Britain at the forefront of this technology”, but he did not respond to numerous requests for comment. Several days, emails and phone calls later it became clear why: The Trials Had Never Happened.
Highways England spokesman Daniel Wood admitted as much: “We are going to pause this project. We’ll go back into procurement when the technology has developed a bit more and we can learn from the outcome of Europe’s FABRIC project, so we are not replicating research,” he told me on a phone call.
Europe’s €9 million FABRIC project will test DWPT next year in France, Italy and Sweden. Its trials will be at lower power and lowers speeds however, and researchers at the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) – one of the 23 organisations taking part – seemed nonplussed by the collapse of the UK’s trials.
Denis Naberezhnykh, who leads the lab’s research on low carbon vehicles, said: “We need to find out whether this technology can be implemented in a way that is technologically feasible and commercially viable. For that, we need to trial full integration of these technologies into a real road structure, at real speeds, with heavy duty vehicles. FABRIC won’t do that.”
He added: “The technology is certainly ready. We assessed 17 types and found eight to offer dynamic charging capabilities. Unlike other countries, in the UK we haven’t developed and licensed our own challenger technology, but I don’t see that as a problem: we have the pick of the market. But it’s going to take some bold decisions.”
Others are making them: South Korea is running wirelessly charged electric buses, using technology developed by the country’s flagship Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Utah State University has already built a DWPT test track and this year it held the country’s first public demonstration.
Sweden is also testing a wide range of ways to electrify road transport, including trucks run off overhead power lines. The trucks can freely connect to and disconnect from the overhead wires while in motion, operating as electric vehicles when on the electrified road and as regular hybrid vehicles at other times.
A Budgetary Shock
So, why not build the test track as promised? Looking ahead, policy makers may have been put off by the sheer cost: after modelling the construction of a stretch of electric highway, TRL estimated the construction and operating costs at £17 million per kilometre (infrastructure accounting for 30%, electricity for 70%).
Even more alarmingly for those holding government purse strings, its model found that there would be a reduction of “around £14 million in central government revenue, because of the ‘loss’ of fuel duty and VAT from reduced fuel consumption… significantly greater than the capital costs of the fixed infrastructure.”
Even if a bold government decided the economic fillip of large scale infrastructure investment and the environmental benefits (transport accounts for 25% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions) were worth the lost tax revenue, financing construction would prove a major challenge. There’s a clear “chicken and egg” issue at play: the infrastructure would likely prove an incentive for wider uptake of EVs, but the business case for investing in the technology is weak without the initial demand from users.
Keep it Static?
Ultimately it may prove a false economy to build charging technology into highway surfaces. The promise of electric highways is compelling however, and given Britain’s pitifully low R&D spending, the construction of the promised test track would have been a welcome sign of a return to bold thinking about engineering in what is a tremendously lop-sided service economy.
The first wirelessly-charged EVs meanwhile will hit the market next year. Industry groups from China’s CATARC to Germany’s DKE and SAE International are all working to develop guidelines for interoperability between chargers – sorely needed to support the roll-out of public charging infrastructure.
SAE in May 2016 released the first industry guidelines – the snappily titled “SAE TIR J2954 Wireless Power Transfer for Light-Duty Plug-In/ Electric Vehicles and Alignment Methodology” to define safety criteria and interoperability targets.
If adopted and EV uptake continues to be supported by falling prices and advances in battery technology (manufacturers from Toyota to General Motors are joining Elon Musk’s Tesla in developing new models. Volkswagen alone plans to produce 3 million of them a year within the next decade), wireless charging pads could soon be embedded into strategic places in the road network, at traffic lights, in public car parks.
Electric highways, in some shape or form, are coming soon.
Just not, perhaps, to Britain first.