Elonroad: Electrifying Transportation

Keeping electric vehicles charged on the go

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?

The inspiration

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.

The challenges

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.

New technology requires new solutions and new mindsets, and it’s no different for Electric Vehicles. This is a new technology that requires a new way of thinking.

Karin Ebbinghaus CEO Elonroad

Tesla, of course, is what really opened up the EV market and is instrumental in the automobile industry feeling the pressure to change, and Ebbinghaus is hopeful that the industry will continue to take steps to move beyond the chassis and become part of the larger solution.

The solution

EV drivers often have charging anxiety and range anxiety. You might be driving and see that you need to charge within the next 30 minutes, but when you get to the charging station it might be in use. So, you have to wait to use the charging station and you also have to wait while the EV is being charged, which isn’t nearly as fast as just filling up the gas tank. Being able to charge as you drive reduces and even removes these anxieties – but that is only the beginning of how Elonroad solves myriad challenges.

“Stationary charging stations will not be enough when we become a fully electric vehicle society,” explains Ebbinghaus. “They will be part of the larger ecosystem of charging options. Additionally, when we look at rural areas, the Elonroad solution will have very positive implications: when you’re in a city or town, you will have any number of options as how to charge your electric vehicle, but out in the countryside you won’t have as many and we all know you can’t just borrow a can of electricity in an emergency like you can with petrol. Having charging rails on the roads outside the cities will solve a lot of problems in a very simple way.”

And as urban populations continue to grow, cities have to ask themselves if they want to take up more space for parking where an EV could be charged? Or would it be better to use existing infrastructure, such as roads?

“In a city, there are so many use cases that can share the same infrastructure and solution,” says Ebbinghaus. “So, if you put a network of charging lanes, you can charge anything from cars and buses, to taxis and last mile vehicles. You wouldn’t have to build as many pantographs for buses or charging stations for cars – it’s suboptimizing the charging infrastructure because you are using one solution to solve the challenges faced by many user groups.”

Elonroad’s electrified road solution can also be a boon for large, long-distance trucks, where battery size is a challenge, as is the amount of time to charge the large batteries that would today be needed to power a large vehicle. In fact, the Swedish government has large trucks as a use case, due to the difficulty in electrifying them. Elonroad would enable them to be charged while they’re operating.

Connecting Elonroad

On a practical level, a device is placed in the car that connects to the conductive rail in the road. There is both a digital and physical connection called a pickup, and there is also an antenna that sends an encrypted signal identifying the vehicle and unlocking the power distribution. The driver is in control of whether or not energy is being picked up, and can set parameters, such as setting when the battery should be charged, among other things. That signal also enables payments, which can be pay-per-use or via a subscription.

“The system also knows how much effect we have in the grid at any moment, which means we can then distribute it to whomever needs it the most. We will know in real time how many users need charging,” explains Ebbinghaus. “We have a lot of sensors in the road, and we have a lot of processing power to have the safety to unlock the power system. It’s the IoT sensors that allow us to unlock the energy strip in real time. Right now, we’re using 4G, but 5G is going to be even better, both for real time and for lower latency.

The IoT sensors can pick up a lot more information than just who needs a charge, though. The sensors can also pick up information on things like moisture, air quality, temperature ice, snow – in other words, Elonroad’s solution can make the road smart and gather information that can be provided to different stakeholders – and that’s not limited to drivers. Real time and historical data can be used by municipalities to gauge what is happening in the moment, such as a road needs to be sanded because it’s covered in ice. That information and data can also help with long-term planning of repair work, upgrades to roads, identifying problem areas, etc. Where is it getting icy? Is water rising? Where is wear and tear most dire?

“I spoke with some men working on the road pavement and apparently maintenance is dependent on sun, shadows, etc.  Data we are able to collect from our embedded sensors would allow predictive maintenance and thus reduce costs, so while this is a solution for EV charging, its applications are much wider,” says Ebbinghaus. “Also, going back to heavy trucks: these big trucks are only allowed to drive on certain roads and there are weigh stations along the highways. The Elonroad solution could be used to measure weight, vibrations, and other things, something we think the Swedish Transport Agency will be interested in, due to the cost savings and more precise data.”

There is also a lot of interest from ports, where there are heavy demands on decarbonizing, so they want all working trucks in ports to be electric. The challenge has been that the trucks often work around the clock and the same vehicle is deployed for all shifts. They don’t have destinations, though, and they don’t have overnight resting times where they can be parked and charged. Having a conductive rail in the finite port area is the ideal solution for keeping the trucks charged and working.

The road ahead

Right now, Elonroad is piloting an electrified road in Lund, Sweden, and is also collaborating with one of Sweden’s largest home delivery companies. Additionally, they are working with the Port of Helsingborg and delivery company Bring in Norway.

We’re setting up a pilot to retrofit one of their Kias to charge on our road, which allows them to keep their cars charged 24/7 and also help in their efforts to move completely towards having a sustainable, electric fleet,” explains Ebbinghaus. “We will be up and running and fully commercial with the right certifications, etc. in the next year or two.”

Additionally, Elonroad will be participating in a tender for 3000km of road in Sweden’s Örebro region, although this presents some different challenges.

“There are different divisions within the Swedish Transport Administration: they have their charging division, and they have their digitalization division – and our system is at the intersection of both. So, when they tender for charging, they’re not tendering for a larger solution – the siloed departments make things challenging.  We hope we will have some digital interfaces or digital demands in the tender for the procurement.

“When you are looking at the roads of the future or really anything these days, you have to think digital right away, so there needs to be a change in mindset. You need to see what could be, rather than what is. There are no other electrical road systems like Elonroad, which have sensors embedded, so for me, I see our solution as an IoT hotel, where our IoT sensors can measure pretty much anything related to that road.”

As technology evolves, electrification will no longer operate in small hubs. Instead, hubs will cluster and merge as the ecosystem matures – and electrified roads will play a big part in this.

“We also feel a real sense of urgency to establish Elonroad in order to help the climate,” says Karin Ebbinghaus. “The last year or two alone have shown us that climate change is a real emergency and we need to find ways to combat it. It’s about both making an impact but also doing technology development quickly. As a result, I think people are waking up and realizing it’s not profit OR purpose, it’s profit AND purpose – something we at Elonroad feel very strongly about.”

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