In the futuristic racing video game F-Zero X, released for the Nintendo 64 console in 1998, players compete against a large field of hovercraft, bumping and boosting their way towards first place. Each vehicle has a plasma charge which becomes depleted as they collide with other vehicles and take advantage of their turbo boost. To recharge the vehicle’s energy, a player must direct his or her vehicle across a glowing purple section of racetrack.
Of course, plasma-fueled hovercraft are far from a realistic proposition in today’s world despite an incredible increase in automotive innovation in recent years. However, the idea that a vehicle could be recharged wirelessly, simply by being in the right place at the right time, is a concept currently being developed by both semiconductor chip makers and automobile manufacturers.
In late May, a partnership was announced between German vehicle manufacturer Daimler AG (OTCMKTS:DDAIY) and San Diego-based telecommunications chipmaker Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM). The agreement involves the testing of wireless charging technologies both for in-car applications, such as wireless phone charging, as well as similar tech for recharging electric vehicles without plugging the car into an electrical outlet. German vehicle and engine manufacturer BMW AG (XETRA:BMW) is developing a wireless inductive charger for its batteries that could be installed in the floor of a garage or carport.
The wireless transfer of electricity to power devices was first suggested by renowned inventor Nikola Tesla more than a century ago but the use of electromagnetic induction to transfer electrical energy without wires has recently come back into vogue. Basic electromagnetic induction works by supplying power to a charging station which includes an induction coil. The electric current causes the induction coil to create an electromagnetic field around itself which is capable of transferring power to a second induction coil within its vicinity.
Current wireless charging technologies are at most 70 percent energy efficient, which means that about 30 percent of the electricity consumed by the process is lost. However, more consumer electronic products are coming standard with wireless charging capabilities, including Samsung’s latest generation of Galaxy and Note devices. To charge a device wirelessly, the device simply has to be placed upon the charging pad so that the two induction coils are within the proper distance. Some wireless charging schemes even indicates to a user where to lay the device on the charging pad to receive the greatest electrical charge.
One aspect of wireless charging technologies which has been discouraging the wider incorporation of induction coils into electronic devices was the existence of different wireless charging standards. At the start of this year there were three major standards for wireless electricity transmission developed respectively by the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), the Power Matters Alliance (PMA) and the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC). These standards operate at different frequencies, thereby making it impossible for one wireless charging protocol to power a device optimized for a different charging standard. At the beginning of June, however, it was announced that A4WP and PMA would merge, enabling collaboration between A4WP members like Samsung, Qualcomm and Broadcom and PMA members such as Duracell, AT&T and Starbucks. The PMA standard utilizes a magnetic induction technique which requires close proximity between a device and a wireless charger while the A4WP standard uses resonance charging which can charge devices at distances of a foot or longer.
However, the Qi wireless charging system developed by the WPC still poses a rival threat to PMA. Members of the WPC include such tech companies as Foxconn, Microsoft, Nokia and Panasonic. Some companies, like Samsung, are a member of both organizations but there are those who believe that, much like the recent Blu-ray/HD DVD battles, only one standard will eventually win out and become the main wireless power transmission standard.
Many of the world’s largest automotive developers are entering the fray to make sure that their electric vehicles are equipped with wireless charging capabilities in the near future. A magnetic-resonance charging technology is being tested by Japanese automaker Toyota (NYSE:TM) which would be used in concert with Toyota’s Intelligent Parking Assist system, directing the vehicle to the proper position over the wireless charger for the driver. German electronics and engineering firm Bosch has developed a wireless charging unit that is designed for inclusion on upcoming versions of the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt. Audi is also nearing production on a 3.6-kilowatt wireless charging system that will be available as an option on the Audi Q7 e-tron 3.0 TDI Quattro. By 2022, Navigant Research has predicted that the market for wireless electric car charging stations could reach 302,000 units each year.
Wireless charging systems are also being designed for use inside the car so that passengers find it easier to keep their smartphones charged over the course of a long road trip. In 2013, the Toyota Avalon was the first vehicle to offer an in-car wireless charging system for mobile devices. Similar options are also available for new Toyota Priuses, Jeep Cherokees and Dodge Darts. The majority of these in-car wireless charging systems utilize the Qi standard developed by the WPC.
The in-car wireless charging market is also enabling some third parties to get involved by developing aftermarket products which are simple to incorporate into just about any vehicle. ZENS, a manufacturer of wireless charging systems for mobile devices, has created a Qi wireless charger for vehicles which is shaped to fit securely within a cupholder, providing a slot within which a smartphone can be easily slipped. Startups are also involved in developing wireless charging solutions for mass-produced electric vehicles. Boston-based WiTricity, which is backed by both Toyota and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), has developed a wireless car charger which it has licensed to automotive parts suppliers Delphi Automotive (NYSE:DLPH) and IHI Corporation (TYO:7013).
Using the patent analysis tools available through Innography, we were able to identify 41 pieces of intellectual property, including 37 patent application and 4 patent grants, which have been respectively filed or issued with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (see above). With 11 pieces of intellectual property in this field, Qualcomm is the leader in this field, holding almost one-third of all of the electric vehicle wireless charging inventions we were able to find. The pie chart posted here shows that other major patenting entities in this field are Intellectual Ventures, Toyota, Ford and Santa Clara, CA-based Mojo Mobility. The market map posted here, also from Innography, shows that, although there are plenty of patent portfolios in the lower-left quadrant representing portfolio acquisition opportunities, there are none in the upper-right quadrant that would indicate any companies in a strong business to buy a portfolio.
This has already been an incredible year for paying attention to highly innovative developments in consumer automotive technologies. The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas gave the world a huge taste for autonomous vehicles, heralding the coming mass production of self-driving vehicles in the years to come. A surge of patenting activity in the automotive sector is also being driven by advances in telematics and heads-up displays. Some of these leaps forward in technology have given federal regulators some cause for concern but it should be clear to anyone following the automotive tech sector that research and development of new auto technologies is alive and well across the world.