In May, 2021, researchers at Cornell University are exploring ways to potentially charge electric vehicles wirelessly while they drive—or ride—down the road. With charging time, battery capacity, and range anxiety being among the principle worries of EV owners, creating a reliable charging infrastructure that’s simply a lane in the roadway you travel every day could go a long way toward easing those worries.  

If you’ve used a wireless phone charger, you’re familiar with the use of magnetic fields to conduct energy into your phone. To explain it simply, this process would use electrical fields instead of magnetic ones, to achieve a similar effect on a much larger scale.  

Unlike your phone, electric vehicles wouldn’t have to touch a certain spot to the charger in order to receive a power boost. Under the system Afridi currently envisions, insulated metal plates would be embedded in the roadway. They’d be connected to a power line and a high-frequency inverter, which would create oscillating electrical fields to interact with matching metal plates on the bottom of your vehicle.  

EV owners could then switch into or out of charging lanes as needed. Plates like these could also be put into place at stoplights in congested areas, so EV owners could at least be charging their vehicles while they’re stuck in traffic. As for charging costs, many tollway systems already use electronic passes to charge roadway users, so it wouldn’t be difficult to do the same thing on a charging use case basis.  

Currently, Cornell associate professor of electrical and computer engineering Khurram Afridi and his team are working to make this charging process a reality. Since interstate highways and infrastructure around the US are in serious need of an upgrade anyway, Afridi posits that now may be the best time to do this kind of work, since it would involve fitting metal plates and equipment into the surface of a given lane.  

To arrive at this concept, Afridi didn’t only stick to what had been tried before. Magnetic field charging has limitations that make it a less than ideal candidate for this type of work, which necessitated the switch to electrical fields. Afridi ended up taking a multidisciplinary approach, using knowledge he’d gleaned from some of his other studies. 

“Wireless power transfer is based on the same underlying physics used to send messages through radio waves to spacecraft in deep space, things like Voyager,” Afridi said in a statement. “Except now we are sending much more energy across much shorter distances, to moving vehicles.” 

His team has been developing this idea since 2014, and the work is currently ongoing in 2021. It’s unclear when or if this tech could come to a roadway near you, but if it works as described, it sounds like a promising solution to some very near-term problems for EV owners.