An autonomous vehicle zips down the 101 Freeway, on its way to drop you off at work. You gaze out the window at the dozens of other commuters in self-driving cars en route to offices in the Bay Area. The electric car drops you off and drives across the street to a charging station. But how does the car charge itself without a human to plug it in?
Enter wireless charging pads. Forget steering toward a car depot, where employees recharge autonomous vehicles with a cord. CEO Alex Gruzen’s company, WiTricity, is developing pads that will allow driverless cars to pull over and rapidly juice up all on their own. But Gruzen isn’t waiting around for the broad dissemination of autonomous vehicles. He’s collaborating with the majority of global automakers right now to make electric vehicle (EV) charging incredibly easy and efficient, in the hopes it will make more people go electric worldwide.
Wireless charging isn’t a brand-new technology — smartphones have been capable of wire-free charging since the launch of the Nokia Lumia 820 in 2012. With Apple finally on board, the tech is quickly gaining popularity. But Gruzen, 55, has his sights set on bigger appliances. He sees a future where every electric vehicle, and eventually every autonomous vehicle, will rapidly charge itself — no need to plug in.
I wanted to be the first person to perform surgery in space.
The complexity of cord-free charging in consumer electronics, in addition to the battle among multiple companies for market share, has made the technology difficult to popularize. Founded by a group of MIT professors led by Marin Soljačić, who developed the magnetic resonance technology to transfer power over long distances, Massachusetts-based WiTricity was developing wireless charging for personal devices when Gruzen arrived as CEO in 2014. But Gruzen ditched phones so his team of 55 could focus on cars. The result? A charging pad plugged into the wall in your garage — or installed in a parking lot — that juices up your car battery while the car is parked on top of the pad. No messy cords or plugs. The first EV that will utilize WiTricity’s mat is coming to market this year, Gruzen says.
Gruzen’s polished demeanor makes clear his lower Manhattan, prep school upbringing. A lifelong athlete, he grew up playing soccer and skiing, and today is a runner and frequently rows on the Charles River before work. Influenced by his psychologist mother and architect father, plus stepparents in the arts, Gruzen is both creative and analytical. At MIT, he was a tinkerer who double majored in aeronautical engineering and pre-med. His career goals were as lofty as it gets — literally. “I wanted to be the first person to perform surgery in space,” Gruzen says, chuckling.
After realizing aeronautics would likely put him in a government job, Gruzen pivoted to business. He earned an MBA from Harvard and went to work for Sony in Tokyo — his gateway to Silicon Valley. At the height of the ’90s tech boom, Sony invested in a company called General Magic, founded by members of Apple’s original Macintosh team, including Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld. Gruzen worked closely with them to develop the Sony Magic Link, a personal digital assistant that could send and receive messages, make phone calls and perform computing functions — a smartphone before smartphones. Gruzen recalls this time as one of the best in his career. After the first product launch, he went to Fry’s Electronics in Palo Alto, California, to watch people spend their hard-earned money on something he had made. “I try to re-create that feeling every year,” Gruzen says.
Later, after building his own venture capital firm in Austin, Texas, called Corsa Ventures, the father of four (one kid in high school, two in college, one graduate) was itching to get back in the driver’s seat of a tech company. When he was approached to lead WiTricity, he saw an opportunity to create something with mass appeal. “The idea that your target market could be anything that has a battery was really exciting,” Gruzen says. According to car-buying site Kelley Blue Book, out of 16 million monthly site visitors, fewer than 5 percent of searches are for electric or hybrid vehicles. Gruzen believes that lack of interest can be solved with WiTricity’s charging pad. By making charging simple and almost subconscious, it takes away “range anxiety” — the worry that you’ll run out of battery in the middle of a trip.
But more important, wireless charging will be essential to autonomous vehicle fleets. Autonomous systems will consume significant power, Gruzen says, and they’ll need to “opportunity charge” during the day. “We will have fast charging ready for these vehicles,” he says.
In November 2017, the Society of Automotive Engineers released new wireless charging specifications, which support WiTricity’s Drive 11 package. It will allow for more competitors in the space, but it will also help automakers develop standardized wireless charging and grow the market. By 2021, multiple fleets from major automakers will be wireless charging compatible, Gruzen says. WiTricity’s automaker partnerships include Nissan and Toyota, among others.
But the auto business doesn’t move at the speed of tech. Wireless charging companies like Qi, focused on smartphones, and Energous, focused on home and office electronics, already have products on the market, and are attractive to anyone with a cellphone — so, most everyone. Energous CEO Steve Rizzone acknowledges that WiTricity will be a dominant player in the wireless car charging game, but cautions that “penetrating the automotive markets and bringing the technology to the consumer takes years.” And due to the risk of overheating the battery, charging an EV will never be as fast as filling up a gas tank, making mass appeal an arduous task.
After focusing on consumer electronics for most of his career, the automotive product cycle is difficult to get used to, Gruzen admits. But his confidence in the technology outweighs his impatience. For electric cars to make a dent in climate change, they need to “reach every customer and have a better user experience,” Gruzen says. “That’s where WiTricity comes in.” It’s a hefty goal for a humble-looking pad.