Electric Vehicles (EV) are close to the tipping point of rapid mass adoption, with global sales rising by 43% in 2020, despite an overall slump of car sales during the global pandemic. Even faster growth is predicted due to the falling price of batteries, which in turn reduces the overall price of electric cars, with the latest analyses forecasting that the tipping point will be reached between 2023 and 2025. The big question now is how the infrastructure around EVs will work. Will charging stations be dotted throughout cities and across the countryside to reach rising demand, keeping motorists stationary possibly for hours as they wait for sufficient charging? Or will solutions like that offered by Swedish clean tech company Elonroad – conductive charging strips on the road – be what keeps everyone on the move, even as they charge their cars?
Sometimes inspiration strikes in the most unusual way – and for Elonroad founder Dan Zethraeus, his inspiration came from the muddy piles of snow and slush that gather along the median strip of the highway during winter. Zethraeus was a film director, making the 30-minute commute between his home in Lund and his office in Malmö in southern Sweden, and as early as 2012 he had wanted to buy an Electric Vehicle (EV), but the cost at that time was prohibitive. He also lived in a city apartment, where charging infrastructure was challenging – if you live in a house, you can charge off your own source of electricity, but living in an apartment generally removes that option. And while he isn’t an engineer by trade, Zethraeus has a long-standing fascination with new technologies, along with a strong environmental interest, and knew that technology can act as a solution for many challenges.
“He was driving to work one day and while we don’t get a lot of snow in the south of Sweden, when there is snow it forms a pile of muddy slush in the middle of the road,” explains Karin Ebbinghaus, CEO Elonroad. “Dan looked at those piles of slush during his commute and thought to himself ‘What if there was something there that could charge my car’ – a bit like the car racing tracks he played with when he was a kid.”
Many times, when struck by inspiration, most people don’t act on it. Dan Zethraeus, on the other hand, couldn’t let go of the idea. He had an idea – one that Elonroad has to this day – that plus and minus posts, not in parallel with one another, but instead after one another – could solve EV charging challenges. To confirm his hypothesis, Zethraeus first built a prototype using his children’s Lego – and because he’s a filmmaker, he documented the entire journey of how Elonroad got to where they are today.
“We have Lund Technical University right in our backyard, so Dan looked up whom to contact to talk about his concept and eventually set up a meeting with a professor to discuss whether his idea was doable,” says Karin Ebbinghaus. “The professor thought there was possible potential but pointed out that if the conductive rails were above ground level, it might be a bit like having a speedbump on a highway, which could make them uncomfortable to drive over – but if Dan could convince him that this wouldn’t be a problem, he might be on to something.”
Zethraeus went to a lumber yard and cut a piece of wood to mimic exactly what the rail would look like, then took the professor to a racetrack and drove over the mock-up rail at various speeds – and he did it will a full coffee cup in the cup holder of the car. When the professor saw how little disturbance there was, he was convinced the concept was viable. They then applied for a grant from the Swedish Energy Agency and received a grant for 1.5 million Euros to further develop the concept.
One of the biggest challenges for Elonroad was getting people not just interested in the concept, but also to understand the concept. After the first prototype was built, Zethraeus took part in numerous conferences to talk about electrified roads, trying to get people to grasp the concept and how it not only fulfills a real need in the EV infrastructure, but also that it was completely possible. He needed people to understand that you don’t need to follow the traditional model of petrol-fueled cars, where you go to the gas station to fill up.
“Another challenge was the automotive industry, because they want their responsibility to end at the chassis,” says Karin Ebbinghaus. “In other words, they don’t want to be concerned with how the car is fueled once it leaves the factory. This is where different sectors, such as energy and automotive, need to be aligned – but these are the same sectors that, unlike industries like telecoms, are not really known for innovation or being at the forefront of pushing things forward. The big car manufacturers are not really there when it comes to working with new technology and being part of the solution. The thing is, though, those who don’t get onboard and work beyond the chassis, will probably see themselves with a competitive disadvantage.