Skip the Car Charger: Roads With a Jolt of Electricity Are Coming to the U.K.

A government trial in England hopes to make it easier for residents to drive electric vehicles.

(Photo: Highways England)

Aug 17, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Sure, ditching a gas guzzler in favor of an ultra-low-emission, electricity-powered vehicle is better for the environment. But what happens if you’re on a road trip, your electric car’s battery runs out of juice, and—horror—there’s no outlet around to plug in for a recharge?

Eliminating the possibility of that nightmare scenario is at the heart of an effort announced late last week by government officials across the pond. Highways England, the agency responsible for operating and maintaining major roads, said it plans to conduct an 18-month trial of highways that will wirelessly charge vehicles as they travel along them.

The effort comes on the heels of a successful feasibility study that looked at whether what Highways England calls a “dynamic wireless power transfer” system would be able to charge cars. The project is part of a five-year, $780-million effort by the government to spur the development of electric vehicle use in the U.K.

Given the ongoing problems with air pollution there, it’s an effort that’s needed. Thanks to carbon emissions from vehicles, London’s Oxford Street has a reputation as the roadway with the worst air pollution in the world. The problem extends outside the capital. The particulate matter spewing out of vehicles nationwide causes an estimated 60,000 deaths per year across Britain, according to the U.K.’s Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants. Globally, an estimated 7 million people die annually from breathing in dirty air, according to the World Health Organization.

Where the tests will be held—and which companies will be working on the project—hasn’t yet been shared. “What has been committed to is that by 2016 or 2017 we will hold off-road trials—in other words, not on a public road," Stuart Thompson, a spokesperson for Highways England, told BBC News.

However, the technology behind the initiative seems fairly commonsense: The electric vehicles used in the trials will be equipped with wireless sensors that will pick up a charge from the specially designed roadways. That doesn’t mean its that simple. The researchers have to figure out how to create roads that can withstand temperature extremes and wear and tear—what happens if a massive pothole develops or if the road is covered in ice or snow?—while also effectively charging vehicles.

RELATED: The Road of the Future Might Be Made From Plastic Trash

There is some precedent. Since 2013, buses in the South Korean city of Gumi have sucessfully traveled on a 7.5-mile stretch of road that is tricked out with wireless electrical technology. That doesn’t mean there aren’t those skeptical about the English endeavor.

“It makes sense to try it out, and the technology does obviously work,” Paul Nieuwenhuis, the director of Cardiff Business Schools Electric Vehicle Centre of Excellence, told BBC News. However, he’s not sure the project is worth the expense. “Battery technology is increasing—if you look at what Tesla has achieved in recent years, it keeps adding more [travel] range to battery technology roughly every six months. So, its not clear theres even a need for this,” Nieuwenhuis said.