In the race to build driverless cars, it might pay to keep your eyes on the road.
A father-daughter team founded the Scotland-based Tracked Electric Vehicle project where battery-powered cars recharge while they drive from a metal strip embedded in highways. The system is designed to combat range anxiety from consumers who worry an electric car will lose its spark before finding a place to plug in.
The program has caught the attention of infrastructure builders such as ArcelorMittal S.A., OHL Group and Heintzmann GmbH, which earn revenue from large public works and awarded the TEV Project a prize for the best invention in the industry. For the project’s founder, Will Jones, the system has the potential to keep driverless electric cars on the road around the clock.
“It’s a magical thing,” said Jones, 75, who owns dozens of energy-related patents and also co-founded Philadelphia Scientific LLC, a maker of battery systems. “If you achieve direct contact, energy density for battery-electric cars goes from inadequate to infinite.”
His TEV Project plans to build its first trial road by next year at an estimated cost of $1.2 million to $1.8 million per mile, a price that is less than for a traditional highway. The infrastructure companies are watching the project with interest.
“As a rule of thumb, normal highways cost about 30 times more than the TEV project,” said Jose Papi, chairman of the Smart Transportation Alliance, the infrastructure-company group that picked TEV as the best innovation. Its per-mile costs “are much cheaper than any other idea that we’ve come across,” he said.
TEV, the acronym for Tracked Electric Vehicle, is a non-profit business aimed at helping governments and private companies collaborate. It could cost as much as $295 billion to refit all 164,000 miles of U.S. federal highways with the technology.
TEV Project highways would have an electrified metal strip embedded into the middle of the road that provides a constant source of power to the vehicle. Just like streetcars and subway trains do in today’s cities, cars on a TEV highway could charge as they drive. Jones describes his concept as melding 19th-century railroads with 20th-century highways to underpin a new clean-energy transport network.
There are 1 billion cars on the world’s roads now, and only one-tenth of 1% have a power plug. While electric vehicle sales grew 60% last year and will grow another 46% this year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance data, the U.S. fleet size is still just 460,000. That’s far below the critical mass necessary to win federal infrastructure support. (The Federal Highway Administration requested about $49 billion last year to take care of the national roads system used by the country’s estimated 258 million gasoline-driven cars.)
“There would be a significant cost challenge to implement TEV Project-type infrastructure, as well as potential difficulties in getting automotive manufacturers to collaborate on standards for the connection between the vehicle and road they are proposing,” said Colin McKerracher, head of advanced transportation analysis at BNEF.
Until now, most research has been directed toward increasing battery storage to extend range. Manufacturers including Tesla Motors Inc. and General Motor Co. are both developing better batteries to cover greater distances.
Yet even the best batteries can’t perform without charging stations. There were a combined 160,000 public charging stations in the world’s eight biggest electric-car markets, according to the most recent data. Transportation infrastructure is still so skewed toward gas-guzzlers that even green-leaning California has more than three gas stations for every electric-charging station.
“Charging infrastructure is one obstacle to electric vehicle market growth” said McKerracher, who also noted that the high cost of electric cars remains the primary impediment.
TEV is seeking to develop its concept at Newcastle University in northern England, where it’s still in discussions about funding for the next two years. Their grant would be partially financed by Innovate U.K., a government-owned agency.
By Anna Hirtenstein