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Car-Charging Robots

In January 2021, Top Gear website introduced a “cute” mobile charging robot. I must admit the accompanying images leave me in two minds. On the one hand, it is pretty cute — it looks to have a personality, like a bulked up, streamlined version of R2-D2 or Johnny 5 (if you’re old enough to remember that far back). 

On the other hand, it’s kind of sinister. There’s something about its blinking digital “eyes” and waiting for you behind a wall in an underground car park that gives off serious serial killer vibes. Perhaps I’ve watched too many science fiction movies of evil robots hell-bent on destroying humanity. I should give the little guy a chance…

The little guy is in fact Volkswagen’s new prototype, which allows for “fully autonomous charging of vehicles in restricted parking areas”. That explains the underground car park…

A cartoon image of a character putting electricity into their car at a pump.

The article continues:

“Conceived as a more cost-efficient way of electrifying existing parking infrastructure, the idea is the cute little robot hauls a mobile charger to your car, plugs it in, then returns later to pick it up when you need to leave (or your battery’s full).

“In the meantime the robot services other cars, delivering other mobile chargers to vehicles and returning empty ones to a central charging station to be topped-up and re-used. The entire charging process is autonomous, says VW. The robot opens the charge flap (or asks the car to do it via car-to-X communication) and connects/disconnects the cable all by itself.

"The system is very much in the prototype stage currently, with VW promising it's headed for comprehensive further development. It cautions that ‘one of the prerequisites for market maturity’ is that car-to-X communication tech that would allow an EV to effectively communicate with the robot and charger."

That does sound handy — like an electronic Petrol Station Attendant without the awkward small talk.

Whatever your views on its aesthetics, it does represent a step in the right direction for electric vehicles (EVs). After all, a reliable and readily-accessible charging infrastructure is essential for the transition to emission-free vehicles. Without it, many are reluctant to take the plunge.

A 2018 Statista survey found that 44% of respondents hadn’t really thought about buying an electric car or van. A further 19% said they had thought about it, but had decided not to at this stage. Tellingly, only 1% already own an electric vehicle, compared to 2% of respondents admitting to having never heard of electric cars or vans.

Ofgem data from 2021 paints a slightly rosier picture, with one in four UK households intending to buy an electric car in the next five years, as the 2030 ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol vehicles approaches. The accompanying article in The Guardian states:

“There are more than half a million ultra-low-emission vehicles on Britain’s roads, the Department for Transport said recently. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, nearly one in seven (13.6%) of new cars sold in the past four months were pure battery electric or plug-in hybrids. Electric and hybrid cars made up more than one in 10 sales last year, up from one in 30 the year before.

“The Ofgem research also shows that more than a third (38%) of households said they were unlikely to buy an electric vehicle in the next five years, with 59% of them saying the price is too high, 38% voicing concerns about a short battery life and short range, and 36% worried about having nowhere to charge their electric vehicle close to home.”

These are all valid concerns, which we’re likely a fair few years away from fully remedying.

Indeed, an electric car journey from John O’Groats to Land’s End made headlines in July 2021, as BBC South transport correspondent Paul Clifton and two co-drivers drove the length of Britain to set a new world record for energy use.

Of the accolade, Clifton told the BBC:

“The aim was to assess whether these electric cars are now viable for real-world long distance use. I admit I wasn't convinced an electric car was yet quite a match for petrol or diesel for very long distance travel. I've changed my mind. We have reached the tipping point.”

The car was charged at public service stations along the route, with the journey taking 27 hours in total.

My main concern with electric vehicles is the added planning required. Even a straightforward journey you’ve made hundreds of time (to see the in-laws, for instance) can be made complicated when charging points are thrown into the mix. What if all the charging points at the service stations are taken? What if they’re broken? What options do you have then?

A cartoon image of a three-lane motorway, with three cars: one pink, one yellow, one blue in each lane.

Like a spare tyre, a car charging robot you store in your boot could help put your mind at rest. SparkCharge and FreeWire are two companies focused on back-up options, both attracting heavy investment for their battery-based mobile charging initiatives.

Of FreeWire, Green Car Reports wrote:

“FreeWire efforts initially grew around the Mobi EV charger — a Level 2 charger on wheels — plus the Boost Charger, a DC fast charger unit that employs a battery buffer to work with existing infrastructure and costs 40% less to install than typical fast chargers. It also has the Mobi Gen unit that’s designed to completely replace diesel generators at construction sites and events.

“As FreeWire has pointed out, its solutions are aimed to help overcome inadequacies in infrastructure and be rapid-acting and cost-effective.”

The less-than-ideal charging infrastructure in the UK is best described as a chicken or egg conundrum, as Ashurst point out in their November 2020 article:

“The case for investing in charging infrastructure relies heavily on the level of EV uptake, and EV uptake is dependent on the prevalence of charging infrastructure.”

The piece continues:

“Cost is also a barrier to expanding the EV charging network. First, public charging infrastructure is expensive, particularly for rapid chargers. The expense is due to higher operating and maintenance costs, including rent and insurance, relative to home and workplace charge points. 

"Second, overall costs are uncertain — a charge point's exact location will have an impact on whether additional utilities works are required. Finally, in the context of public transport fleets, particularly buses, operators face the risk of sunk costs associated with investing in infrastructure along particular routes. If a private operator contracts with a public authority to operate services on a given route, the risk materialises if the underlying operating contract falls away and the operator has infrastructure at fixed locations it can no longer use.”

But there are other options. Ashurst points to wireless charging, hydrogen fuel and solar charging as three potential alternatives to fixed plug-in points. Of wireless charging, they wrote:

“As an alternative to dedicated electric charging points which EV users must seek out and plug into, introducing user-friendly EV wireless charging could leverage existing infrastructure to incorporate EV charging into regular vehicle routes. Parking spaces could be fitted with wireless charging pads and technology enabling in-motion wireless charging could see parts of the road network fitted with charging sections.

“Wireless charging taxis will be piloted in Nottingham between 2020 and 2022. Qualcomm's Halo induction technology transfers energy between a 1m2 charging pad on the ground and a charging pad on the underside of the stationary vehicle. By placing wireless charging pads at taxi ranks, electric taxi fleets can benefit from time savings where multiple vehicles can connect and disconnect from a charger quickly while moving up the taxi queue. With shorter, more frequent charges, vehicles can carry a smaller battery, reducing the vehicle's overall costs, too.”

Wireless charging in-motion is another area of focus. Israeli company, Electreon, are developing and operating short stretches of wireless charging roads, with testing already having taken place in Tel Aviv, Gotland, Germany and Italy.

A cartoon image of a poster affixed to a brick wall. The poster features a grayscale photograph of a car and is emblazoned with the slogan 'World of Tomorrow'.

In February 2022, Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced an Electreon-led pilot scheme on a 1-mile stretch of road in Detroit. Whitmer explained:

"As we aim to lead the future of mobility and electrification by boosting electric vehicle production and lowering consumer costs, a wireless in-road charging system is the next piece to the puzzle for sustainability… I am happy to see Michigan lead and keep building on these ground-breaking initiatives creating new business opportunities and high-tech jobs. Together, we will continue growing our economy and putting Michiganders first."

But how exactly does the in-road charging system work? Electreon's product is comprised of four core parts:

1) Under-road units: Infrastructure built of copper coils under the asphalt

2) Management unit: Transfers the energy from the electricity grid to the road infrastructure and manages communication with approaching vehicles

3) Vehicle units: Receivers are installed on the floor of the vehicle to transmit the energy directly to the engine and the battery while driving

4) Central Control Unit (CCU): Operates on a Cloud, it can communicate with all management units and all registered vehicles

According to Electreon, the advantages are eight-fold:

  • minimisation of battery size

  • increased utilisation with no idle time

  • elimination of range anxiety

  • reduced deployment investment due to shared platform for all electric vehicles

  • no charging stations

  • leveraging of existing infrastructure

  • minimisation of pollution

  • supporting distributed renewable energy systems

On face value, it sounds fantastically futuristic but it comes with its own set of costly and complex challenges if, indeed, it proves to be a viable large-scale option in the first place. Watch this space.


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