I was about 6 years old when I first operated an electric vehicle.
My father helped me put together the flimsy plastic track for my remote controlled Hot Wheels cars and let me do my own thing. The controller was shaped something like a pistol, and the harder you pulled the trigger, the faster the cars went.
In my excitement, I couldn’t resist going full throttle, launching car after car off the track each time I reached a bend.
I remember wanting to drive those cars freely around my house, but without the metal strip embedded in the track, they were reduced to your typical and boring push-powered Hot Wheels.
Fast forward a few decades, and I am once again facing the limitations of designated electric vehicle routes. Only this time, we aren’t talking about toys.
Online Electric Vehicles
The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has recently developed an electric vehicle that can be charged wirelessly while driving. Known as Online Electric Vehicles (OLEV), these automobiles can receive power through magnetic fields on the road’s surface.
Using a charging technology called “Shaped Magnetic Field Resonance” (SMFIR), power is generated through strips of electric cables buried beneath the road and is captured by a receiving device on the underbody of a vehicle.
Besides the obvious benefit of never having to plug in to charge, OLEVs are able to operate with much smaller batteries. At only 33 percent the size of a normal electric vehicle battery, this means reduced weight, volume, and price.
Two OLEV buses have already been put into operation, and they will run an inner-city route to and from South Korea’s Gumi Train Station and In-dong district. The buses will travel a round-trip of 24 km and will reach approximately 136 horsepower.
In order to maximize efficiency, the SMFIR roads are able to detect when an OLEV is nearby. This function allows the road to turn on magnetic fields when in use and turn them off when not. These fields meet established safety standards and are installed underneath about 10 percent of the entire road.
After a successful pilot run of the first two OLED buses, Gumi City intends to provide ten more by 2015.
Stuck on Track
While OLEV technology is incredibly exciting, it is actually quite difficult to imagine it ever being applied outside of public transit.
The fact is, governments and companies have little incentive to provide OLEV to the common traveler. Not only would this mean an incredibly expensive change in national infrastructure, but it would require the constant provision of free energy.
Remember, OLEV uses an electromagnetic field, which means there is no accurate way to determine which vehicles are making use of that power. While the roads can detect when an OLEV vehicle is nearby, it cannot grab identifying information such as vehicle identification numbers, driver names, or license plates.
Of course, some will argue that the government already builds roads for free, but that’s only because roads are an absolutely necessary part of our infrastructure. The government will pave our roads, but it won’t provide the fuel for our cars, be it gasoline or electricity.
And while it’s true that money follows innovation, innovation also follows money. Unless someone can come up with a profitable business model for OLEV vehicles, don’t expect this technology to hit the consumer market anytime soon.
Companies can actually jump-start infrastructure expansion for conventional electric vehicles, like Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) is currently doing with its Supercharger stations. For OLEV, however, this would require work on public roads. The lobbying efforts would have to be absolutely massive, and they would likely be offset by any automotive companies against such a transition.
Even if a company didn’t have to swim through a sea of red tape, the cost of such a project would be astronomical. We aren’t talking about a few hundred charing stations here – the U.S. highway network alone consists of 4 million miles of roads.
With SMFIR power strips required underneath 10 percent of the road, that’s 400 thousand miles of roadwork, or the entire length of the continental U.S. 133 times over.
I hate to be a downer here, but consumers simply will not purchase a transportation vehicle that confines them to a designated track. If the primary benefit of OLEVs is a smaller battery, then the destinations of these vehicles will be limited by design.
When it comes to the wireless charging of personal electric vehicles, we can expect solar to reach fruition before OLEVs ever become a viable option. Companies like Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA), which has strategic connections to solar distributor SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY), will have a leg up in that game.
However, don’t expect EV plugs to go away any time soon. Until solar panel efficiency significantly improves, EV infrastructure will be in high demand. Look to companies such as Aerovironment (NASDAQ: AVAV) to benefit directly from that trend.
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