The project will be financed through a $2.7 million Federal Transit Administration grant. The demonstration is being done in cooperation between WAVE Technologies, the University of Utah and the transit agency in Utah, which applied for the grant.

The first part of the funding won’t be disbursed until February or March 2012, and the university is still in the midst of constructing the actual bus route. So at the earliest the project won’t begin until spring next year.

The pilot has been described as a demonstration, but the University of Utah route is intended to be permanent and is meant as the first commercial-scale implementation of the technology, May said.

WAVE Technologies is also working with an engineering consultant to develop containers for the embedded pads, May added, so the top of the container would be level with the road, reducing the “air gap” between the primary pad and the one on the bus.

In addition, while the company is prepared to do a second pilot project if necessary, the hope is that the University of Utah bus route will be the only example needed before transit agencies start purchasing the technology.

“We have to get them comfortable and familiar enough with the technology that they are willing to essentially order buses and charging pads from us, and we’ll provide the bus service as a turnkey, full-service solution,” May explained.

Practical for Consumers?

Wu said the wireless power transit technology is practical for every transit authority because buses typically travel on a schedule and idle for a set period of time. That downtime is ideal for recharging.

He explained that the idea is to improve on the first-generation technology and leap into the second generation — where electric buses can operate on a route for an hour before needing to be recharged. Ultimately transit authorities could then keep their costs relatively low for the technology.

While running local bus routes on the technology seems feasible, is the technology flexible enough to be used on cars for the general population?

Wu, Warren and May all believed that in time the wireless power technology should translate to passenger car use. Practical issues remain, however, including battery size and the cost to rip up roads and install pads at various locations.

Those alterations to infrastructure would be costly, but Wu said electricity is roughly six times cheaper to travel on per mile compared to gasoline engines. In addition, he revealed that high-level modeling done in various universities showed that wireless power transfer technology is feasible.

Wu explained that if the operating costs of the 220 million passenger vehicles running today are compared with an infrastructure that is focused more on investing in roads, the cost of the technology is very competitive with what Americans currently spend on transportation.

To make wireless power transfer work on city streets for buses and perhaps cars is one thing. But what about for vehicles that travel long distances? Wu said long stretches of highway would need to be embedded with more advanced charging pads.

“There are a lot of things that help the equation … to recoup infrastructure costs and we don’t believe it is directly out of the question that this technology is just so cost prohibitive,” Wu said, referring to expanding wireless power transfer out to passenger vehicles. “It’s definitely not. It’s very cost-competitive in the long term.”

Brian Heaton  | 

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.