We Live In the Future: Should We Be Looking at Electric Roads Instead of Electric Cars?

Welcome to our new feature column “We Live in the Future,” in which we will tackle subjects of crazy ways the science of transportation is moving forward in our daily lives. These will skew towards longreads, so consider yourself warned: here there be science (and some snark).

electric bus pic

South Korea has introduced two new buses that change the way we think about electric vehicles. Instead of being powered primarily by an onboard battery, these buses in Gumi, South Korea, are charged by the road itself.

Rocking Down to Electric Avenue

Okay, so let’s break that down. These buses, called Online Electric Vehicles (OLEV) by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) (so many acronyms!), are based on the tram system at a Seoul amusement park and the shuttle buses on KAIST’s campus. Instead of pulling their power from a battery, these buses receive 20kHz/100kW (136 HP) in electricity with a maximum transmission efficiency rate of 85%.

For the record, that’s crazy efficient. According to fueleconomy.gov, the transmission efficiency rate of a run-of-the-mill gasoline-powered car is somewhere between 14% and 26%.

How Does It Work?

Well, to start with, if you’re going to create a car that runs on mostly electricity, you have to have a good working knowledge of electromagnetic fields, in that electricity creates magnetic fields and magnets create electricity. There’s obviously more to it than that, but bear with me. This is just the Cliff’s Notes version of one of the four fundamental forces of nature, so obviously books can be (and have been) written on it.

KAIST has developed a corollary technology called “Shaped Magnetic Field in Resonance (SMFIR) (even more acronyms!)” technology. This technology creates a magnetic field from electrical cables buried underneath the surface of the road. These fields are received by a device on the underbody of an OLEV, that from there converts the magnetic fields into electricity.

So electric cables to magnetic fields to magic science box back to electricity, you follow me? Good. Let’s continue.

The OLEV does have an onboard battery, but it is only about a third of the size of a standard electric car’s battery. The vehicles also comply with the international electromagnetic fields (EMF) (acronyms for life!) standards to be within the margin of safety levels necessary for human health.

The Real Question: Is OLEV/SMFIR Technology Feasible?

I’m here to say: yes.

To be fair, I don’t have a degree in science or civil engineering and I’ve never installed cables in a highway before (although I did spend a Christmas season installing network cables in an elementary school with some colorful characters). I have a degree in playwriting, which makes me about the least qualified person on the planet to make decisions about national infrastructure, but hey, we had an actor for a president for eight years, recently.

The power strips the OLEVs run on is only 5% – 15% of the entire road, which means the whole road doesn’t have to be torn up to install them. I don’t know about elsewhere in the nation, but here in Cincinnati, they’ve been widening the I-275 loop for as long as I’ve been driving, so we’re not exactly strangers to lane closures on the highway.

But what about wasted power? Will the roads still be running the SMFIR in the middle of the night, or when regular cars pass by? Worry not, dear reader. The roads have a smart function, which helps it distinguish an OLEV bus or car from your everyday Toyota Camry with no electrical converter, and prevents EMF exposures. The smart function also uses barely any standby power consumption, so while it remains “on” in terms of being powered all the time, it’s not “on” in terms of having its game face on, ready to power any vehicle daring enough to cross its electrified path.

I Sing the Bus Electric

This technology solves the main issue that is currently standing in the way of the widespread acceptance of an electric vehicle: recharge time. For starters, the fact that the power comes from lines under the road itself could eliminate the need for charging stations entirely. With a current electric vehicle, you have about 100 places you can charge up — in the country. Think about that. That’s two stations per state and I’m just going to go ahead and assume some of them (Rhode Island, Idaho, Alaska, etc) don’t have a station at all. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is planning on upping that number significantly (around 2,000 – 3,000 stations) by 2015, but Tesla is still such a new company that I’m loathe to accept those numbers as gospel.

As a personal aside, I drove from Los Angeles to Cincinnati in the summer of 2012, and it was an endurance test, but it is my current proof that electric vehicles on long trips aren’t feasible yet. I managed to find a gas station (not a great gas station, but still) in the middle of the Utah desert. I’m not exaggerating. I was in that dead zone between Las Vegas and Denver, and we were running on fumes, so the station was a godsend.

I did not see a single charging station on the whole trip.

Have they built more stations in the intervening 14 months? Probably. But I would still be willing to venture a guess that they were mostly in your New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago metro areas, for the city dwellers who don’t need to go that far on a charge. If anyone can point me to solid numbers, I would appreciate it.

Magic Bus

It’s early days, but I’m still holding out hope that this technology puts in a strong showing stateside. Although, I don’t particularly see Shell, BP, Speedway, etc. playing ball with a bus that renders them largely useless except for beef jerky sales to dudes on road trips.

h/t to phys.org.


About Nick Philpott

Nick Philpott is the Chief Storyteller at Lebanon Ford. He believes that every vehicle and driver has a unique story to share. You can contact him directly at (513) 932-1010 or nphilpott@lebanon-ford.com.