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Tesla bets $76M on wireless EV charging. Can the tech go mainstream?

Wireless charging could solve many of the headaches caused by EV charging today. But for it to even have a chance, automakers need to integrate it into mass production.
By Julian Spector

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An illustration of a white car parked in an indoor lot with the words "wireless charging" painted on the ground

Tesla’s recent investment in wireless charging for electric vehicles marks a major vote of confidence for this nascent but potentially transformative technology.

The pioneering electric automaker recently bought German startup Wiferion, as reported July 31 in German-language outlet Teslamag and recirculated among the Tesla-minded blogosphere. Tesla hasn’t explicitly said what it paid for the company, but its second-quarter cash flow statement notes $76 million spent on business combinations.”

The question now is, what precisely does Tesla intend to do with its acquisition? And, given the outsize influence Tesla has wielded on vehicle electrification, charging infrastructure and plug design, will this action prompt broader industry interest in wireless charging?

Wireless charging offers a seductive, futuristic proposition: All you have to do to fuel your car is park in the right spot, and electricity will beam into your battery via magnetic resonance. Proponents have evangelized the tech for years as a simpler and sturdier improvement on the often frustrating wired-plug charging apparatus used today.

But commercializing energy hardware is always tough, and in this case, mass adoption requires convincing automakers to undergo a yearslong process of changing their charging architectures. Several startups have crumbled while waiting to move beyond proof of concepts and into production; Tesla plucked its acquisition out of a relatively small cohort of startups still pursuing the tech.

The company Tesla bought focuses not on the passenger-vehicle segment, but on the lower-powered electric and autonomous vehicles that zip around automated warehouses and factories. The most logical next step would be for Tesla to apply this at its own high-tech manufacturing hubs, but the acquisition does give Tesla more engineering chops to develop wireless charging for cars later on, if it wants to.

A video demo of Wiferion's wireless charging tech (Wiferion)

Regardless of Tesla’s plans, multiple major automakers are actively exploring the tech. It takes years to make a major update to a vehicle design, but the tests underway now could lead to standard wireless-charging options later this decade. Whether this insurgent technology can ever unseat the conventional approach remains to be proven, however.

How could wireless EV charging help the energy transition?

Charging is essential to driving electric, yet it so often remains unpleasant, if not unworkable. Wireless charging could radically simplify the experience.

Automakers are still hashing out which charger plug design they should use. But a universal standard for wireless EV charging already exists, just like it does for wireless smartphone chargers. The professional association SAE International (formerly known as the Society of Automotive Engineers) published its standard in 2020 after more than a decade of testing with automakers, wireless charging startups and health agencies.

This process also independently verified that wireless charging can transmit grid power to vehicle batteries at up to 94% efficiency.

Wireless charging hasn’t taken over the world yet, though, in part because automakers haven’t yet made it a standard feature of mass-produced EVs. Customers can install a wireless receiver on their cars as an aftermarket upgrade and install their own floor-pad transmitters at home or in fleet-charging depots. For now, that’s much more of a hassle than just opting for conventional charging.

Public wireless charging proffers many advantages. If it’s pouring rain, the driver needn’t get out of the vehicle to get drenched while handling a high-voltage plug. The charger itself can’t suffer from the wear and tear that disables today’s charger plugs — broken screens, frayed cables, rot, collisions with vehicles, etc.

There’s an underappreciated equity argument here, too, said Jeremy McCool, founder and CEO of wireless-charging startup HEVO. The unwieldy and heavy copper cables needed for EV charging are much more difficult for elderly or disabled drivers to wrangle compared to gas pumps (this video from U.K. charity Motability details numerous physical obstacles to charging access). HEVO is working to integrate its chargers with vehicles designed for disabled drivers, to help them more easily access the benefits of electric vehicles.

Wireless charging also plays a key role in more broad-reaching visions for the future. If autonomous vehicles eventually reshape mobility, as many in Silicon Valley are still hoping they will, the robo-drivers won’t have any hands to plug themselves in when they need to fuel up. They’ll need some form of wireless charging to avoid waiting around for a human as if they’re forever driving through New Jersey.

Some futurists envision embedding wireless charging in roadways themselves so that drivers can top up on the go, potentially eliminating range anxiety for whatever areas actually build that infrastructure, and reducing the need for ever-larger battery packs. Detroit is equipping a mile-long stretch of roadway with wireless charging this year in partnership with Israeli startup Electreon.

Once wireless is in the roads and you’re driving from San Diego to San Francisco without having to stop and charge, there’s no going back,” said McCool, who thinks this could be realistic in the next 30 years or so. It eliminates all the extra messiness of EV adoption.”

State of wireless charging industry: Small, lots of churn

Remarkably few companies are chasing this product that could, at least in theory, reduce the friction around EV charging.

Brooklyn-based HEVO locked down safety and performance certifications for its wireless charging devices, and it has shipped early installations to customers on four continents, McCool said. Massachusetts-based Witricity pivoted to EV charging after initially focusing on wireless phone charging; it licenses technology to other manufacturers. Israeli firm Electreon focuses on wireless charging for fleets, embedding charging stations in roadways.

Those companies are still chasing the wireless dream on their own terms.

But otherwise, the diminutive sector has suffered a string of commercial setbacks on the path to commercializing this novel hardware. Early entrant Wave focused on medium- and heavy-duty fleets and worked with several transit agencies to charge their electric buses. It was bought in 2021 by a holding company called Ideanomics. A Nasdaq blog post later that year highlighted Ideanomics as a cheap stock going under Wall Street’s radar right now”; it has since dropped further under the radar, and today trades for less than 10 cents a share.

Philadelphia-based Momentum Dynamics focused on wireless charging for transit fleets. It recently underwent a shakeup in which the lead investor rebranded the company as InductEv and swapped in a new board and leadership team, per an April 2023 press release. That company claims to have 95 vehicles fitted with its products in operation, while targeting a tenfold expansion this year. In March, InductEV successfully rebuffed patent litigation brought against it by Witricity.

Another contender, Plugless Power, didn’t make it, though its co-founder and CEO, Rebecca Tinucci, ultimately landed in a new role: Today she serves as senior director of EV charging at Tesla.

To date, the wireless-charging sector’s utopian ambitions have not yielded much in the way of tangible adoption. Hardware costs come down with scale, but deployments so far have focused on small pilots and demos, or niche aftermarket sales. Mass deployment depends on automakers signing up, at which point the tech could reach millions of customers instead of hundreds.

Some major automakers are beginning to lay the groundwork for such deployment.

VW, which operates a factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has been working with the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Lab to develop its own wireless-charging hardware. HEVO is currently testing wireless charging with Stellantis, the conglomerate that owns Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Peugeot and more. Stellantis last year proved that it could wirelessly charge its EVs in motion over a track called Arena del Futuro.

2025 is the target year for many automakers for wireless charging,” McCool said, meaning mass-production cars could roll off the lines with built-in wireless charging receivers starting that year. But automakers have kept quiet on the exact timing in their public announcements.

Will Tesla join other automakers in adopting wireless charging?

Tesla’s acquisition targets a very particular specialty, and it’s not passenger vehicles.

Wiferion’s website trumpets its focus on industrial wireless charging” for trucks, autonomous guided vehicles, autonomous mobile robots and tugger trains.” These are the sorts of emissions-free vehicles that zoom around increasingly automated warehouses and factories to move materials and products. They eventually need to recharge, and wireless charging pads let them take care of this without human involvement.

Wiferion says it has sold 8,000 charging systems, which is pretty big-league stuff for wireless charging in 2023. But the product pitches on Wiferion’s website are targeted specifically at the owners of large industrial or commercial facilities.

In other words: If Tesla acquired Wiferion to do the thing it does best, that would be to enhance Tesla’s own factory operations, which themselves have been known to push the boundaries of electrification and automation.

Tesla could reorient that industrial-charging skill set to build out a product line for its own passenger vehicles.

But doing so would require reengineering the systems around a significantly more powerful electric drivetrain, McCool noted. Wiferion says its wireless charger for those autonomous guided vehicles, for instance, can serve all kinds of battery technology and applications with 24 to 48 volts.” Tesla’s passenger vehicles use 400-volt architectures.

Whether or not this is the deal that makes wireless EV charging happen, Tesla’s acquisition signals to the market that the tech is worth investing in. Coming from the public-charging leader that other automakers are trying to emulate, that carries some weight.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.