Cutting the cord for electric cars

Startup plans wireless recharger

jmurawski@newsobserver.comMarch 19, 2012 

  • Evatran Headquarters: Morrisville Founded: 2009 Employees: 15, including 10 locally Phone: 919-377-0679
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— Will the electric car recharger be the next technology to go wireless?

That’s the question posed by Evatran, a Morrisville startup that has created a “plugless” charging station to juice up plug-in electric cars. The company’s founders – and funders – are betting that cutting the cord will be the next advance for electric cars, building on the same concept that has untethered telephones and computers from the tyranny of wall jacks.

Evatran represents one of several efforts in academia and industry to develop wireless recharging on the theory that handling dust-caked, mud-stained, rain-soaked cables will prove to be a major impediment to mass adoption of the electric car. Evatran’s approach allows an electric vehicle equipped with its device to recharge by parking over a recharging pad mounted on the ground.

The concept is intriguing enough to encourage Duke Energy, Google, Clemson University, Hertz Rent A Car and others to test Evatran’s product this spring in anticipation of 2,000 Evatran units being sold this year.

Sears, the tool and appliance chain, has signed on to be an authorized nationwide installer of the garage-based mechanisms needed to make Evatran’s system work at home. The car-mounted adapters would have to be installed by auto dealers.

Raleigh officials, meanwhile, are in talks with Evatran to test the outdoor version of the company’s Plugless Power technology at select locations around town.

“Fundamentally, what we’re selling here is convenience,” said Evatran co-founder Rebecca Hough. “The cord gets really dirty. People run over the cord. And nobody wants to be using a cord in a rainstorm.”

Evatran’s roots

Three-year-old Evatran is a spinoff from MTC Transformers, an electronics manufacturer since renamed Schaffner MTC and based in Wytheville, Va. Evatran moved to Morrisville in January to be closer to a global technology hub. It currently employs 11 people here.

The company is backed by about $3.7 million in funding, about two-thirds of which comes from MTC and private investors. However, $1.2 million comes from the state of Virginia, and is conditioned on creating 85 manufacturing jobs in that state over three years. Evatran expects to continue hiring engineers and other positions in Morrisville as it fine-tunes and markets its device.

Duke Energy, based in Charlotte, will install a Plugless Power unit next month at the South Carolina home of an employee who drives a Chevy Volt to see how the charging unit performs.

“We don’t want to sit back and be surprised by new technologies that are coming down the pike,” said Duke spokeswoman Paige Layne. “The more we are prepared for new equipment that comes into use, the more we’ll be prepared to keep the lights on.”

Jim Poch, Executive Director of Plug-In Hybrid Coalition of the Carolinas, says that as a longtime electric car buff, he’s not fazed by handling charging cables. Poch, a Volt driver in Charleston, S.C., acknowledged some customers might be willing to pay a premium for the convenience of wireless recharging, but he rejects Evatran’s general premise.

“I think it’s self-serving and incorrect to talk about the huge need for this,” Poch said. “I don’t see it as being a barrier to someone purchasing an electric car.”

Raleigh’s concerns

Raleigh officials foresee another impediment: Plugless Power currently works only with the Volt and Nissan Leaf, and the city doesn’t own any of those models yet. The city uses converted plug-in Prius hybrids instead. Hough said Evatran’s technology will be adopted for other auto models soon.

“We’re interested in exploring the technology,” said Julian Prosser, Raleigh’s assistant city manager and an owner of a Nissan Leaf. “Even if the city didn’t host one on city property, we could work with them to identify interested parties in the private sector that might want to host these.”

Evatran has already logged 180 online reservations for Plugless Power. The unit is expected to retail for less than $3,000, not including the cost of installation. The price would be twice as much as some conventional rechargers.

Customers would have to retrofit their cars at the dealership for now, but in the future Evatran is counting on the units being factory-installed.

Because Plugless Power drains energy, it would raise the cost of recharging a car to about $1.45, as opposed to $1.35 for a plug-in charger, said Steve Raedy, Evatran’s R&D director.

The technology

Plugless Power uses induction technology that’s more than a century old and is common today in cell phone cradles, electric toothbrushes, microphones and generators. Induction is based on creating magnetic fields, but in most applications the gap is infinitesimal.

In Evatran’s wireless recharger, however, the gap is 6 inches, representing the distance between the ground pad and the adapter mounted under the car.

The ground pad in the outdoor and indoor units can be embedded in asphalt or concrete so that it’s not visible and does not tempt thieves or vandals.

The company’s Morrisville office displays an outdoor parking lot version of its technology as well as the indoor garage unit, which resembles an electronic scale or aerobics step. The lab in the back is an orderly disarray of wireless charging devices in various states of disassembly, exposing mother boards, capacitors, ribbon cables and other electronic entrails.

A Nissan leaf is elevated on a hoist, exposing a Plugless Power unit attached to its underbelly. An employee hops into another Leaf parked on the floor and slowly drives up over the device until a wall-mounted monitor indicates it has docked. The 240-volt device begins charging automatically.

Hough, the co-founder, holds up the Leaf charging cable, dragging its tail along the floor.

“It’s just a mess,” she says. “Your wife will yell at you because you didn’t wrap it up the night before.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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