The Electric Rolls-Royce, Now With Wireless Charging

By · January 09, 2013

electric Rolls Royce

This imposing Rolls phantom is battery powered, with wireless charging from Qualcomm. (Jim Motavalli photo)

According to Car & Driver, “A battery-powered Rolls-Royce is the answer to a question no one asked.” Indeed, 389 horsepower and 590 foot pounds of torque with sub-eight-second zero to 60 times in a huge luxury car isn’t on everybody’s wish list, but it’s nice to know it exists as a mobile test bed for a company better known for traditionalism than cutting-edge innovation.

From Batteries: Power and Quiet

“Battery power is suitable for Rolls Royce products because electric motors are quiet and powerful and have lots of torque at zero rpm,” said Andrew Morton, the engineering lead on the Phantom project. “The car has exceeded our expectations.” It has a theoretical range of 125 miles, though Morton says it’s probably capable of more. “We drove it 120 miles and still had battery left,” he said.

But this car positively bristles with new tech. I encountered it at the Qualcomm booth at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week because that company’s Halo division provides its magnetic resonance wireless charging pad. Yes, the 74-kilowatt-hour battery charges wirelessly. Qualcomm’s Anthony Thomson, a former University of Auckland professor who developed the technology in New Zealand, told me that one of Halo’s “focus points” was to make the magnetic fields generated by the system very contained. “Even when the transmitter and receiver are badly misaligned there are no harmful effects on other systems or children,” he said.

The Qualcomm system's magnetic resonance technology has an advantage over some inductive systems in not needing precise alignment between the transmitter and receiver. That's important in cars, because people may not be able to park their cars precisely enough for efficient wireless charging. And that's also why there's some talk about automated systems taking over to move the car into alignment.

Morton said that the electric Rolls, which has been on a world tour that took it from Pebble Beach to Abu Dhabi, was always envisioned with wireless charging. “It was there from day one, because our customers would love the idea of just parking up the car and having it charge,” he said.

One Humongous Battery Pack

I drove the car during that endless tour, in New York, and found it very Rolls-like: quiet, powerful, effortlessly capable, as well as hugely luxurious. I’m not seeing it for production, but it doesn’t tarnish the company’s image. That big battery pack, probably the largest on a passenger car until the Tesla Model S 85-kilowatt-hour pack debuted, comes from RR partner Axeon, which is based in Dundee, Scotland.

electric Rolls Royce charging pad

The charging pad doesn't need precise alignment. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Thomson told me the wireless pad communicates with the battery management system “just like a plug-in charger would.” He showed me a sample pad that includes sensors to stop the charging in milliseconds when fouled by metal objects—which could heat up dangerously.

Headed for Licensing

Qualcomm’s business model is to optimize the value of its product, then license it to manufacturers. Thomson said the company will market its technology to charging companies, but only after its further evolved and standards developed. “We absolutely intend to commercialize it,” he said. “We see 2015 as a target date.” The current plans include a London trial in partnership with Renault on wirelessly equipped Fluence Z.E. test cars. Qualcomm is also working with large fleet operators in England to test hands-free charging.

electric Rolls Royce

The pad is designed to shut off if it encounters a foreign metal object. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Qualcomm system is more than 90 percent efficient, and Thomson says 95 percent efficiency is possible in a “gold standard” system, though that might be too expensive for commercialization.

Phones First

Right around the corner from Qualcomm was Qi, the Wireless Power Consortium’s trademark for a wireless charging protocol for smart phones. That technology is making its debut in cars with a wireless charging bin in the 2013 Toyota Avalon.

WPC’s Steve Goacher, whose day job is with Texas Instruments, told me he expects wireless charging for phones to be standard in cars five years from now, but he had no similar date to offer for electric car charging. “Some of our members [there are 130 companies in WPC] are looking at wireless car charging,” Goacher said. “It’s an obvious space for us. But with a much greater power level, charging for cars will take longer to roll out.”

At the Qi booth, journalists who’d been working their phones hard dropped by to get a free burst of wireless charging on pad-equipped tables. Even though they’re tech reporters, some seemed amazed (and happy) that cord-free charging is even possible. It’s obvious that this technology is going to gain adherents quickly. The timetable for cars isn’t as clear, but its likely to happen, too.

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