Qualcomm Making Inroads with Wireless EV Charging Technology

If there’s one thing that’s become clear in the five years since Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) acquired its Halo wireless automotive charging technology, it’s that building a new business—and a new industry—takes time.

As the global market for mobile phones has matured, Qualcomm has been seeking new opportunities in the wireless technology business. The San Diego company sees many reasons why wireless charging will eventually become a robust global market, according to Steve Pazol, a Qualcomm vice president who took over the company’s wireless charging business in 2014. Such reasons include tighter automotive emission standards, self-driving cars, and driver behavior.

Last week, Qualcomm said it had licensed its Halo technology for wireless electric vehicle charging systems to Lear (NYSE: LEA), a leading supplier of electrical systems and other components to carmakers in the U.S. and other nations. Lear is the latest of a handful of companies to sign a licensing deal with Qualcomm. It is based in Southfield, MI, and has about 136,000 employees in 36 countries around the world.

After acquiring HaloIPT (inductive power transfer) in late 2011 from New Zealand’s Auckland University and Arup, the British engineering design consultant, Qualcomm said it would use its tried-and-true technology licensing model to advance its innovation in wireless charging. The technology uses a doormat-sized electromagnetic device to generate an electric field, which wirelessly transfers energy to an electric vehicle’s power system.

Pazol said in a recent interview that the wireless charging business largely depends on electric vehicles taking off. Qualcomm is competing not only with other wireless recharging technologies, but also with conventional plug-in EV charging systems that are being deployed.

In the United States, the market for electric vehicles hasn’t exactly taken off, but it has steadily grown as tightening government regulations on automotive emission have led automakers to use EVs to reduce overall fleet emissions. “Internal combustion engines are running out of room, in terms of meeting emission standards, and the cost of building EVs is coming down,” Pazol said.

The industry’s push for self-driving cars also has helped to accelerate the development of wireless charging systems, Pazol said. “An autonomous EV cannot plug itself in,” Pazol said. But it can position itself over a wireless EV charging system on the floor of a garage or parking space.

When Qualcomm acquired Halo, only one or two automakers were working on wireless charging systems for electric vehicles, Pazol said. “Now everyone I know has an active program, if not production activity.”

Like many innovations in the auto industry, wireless charging systems typically start with Mercedes-Benz and other luxury models, and move from there into less-expensive models. As a result, Pazol said the biggest engineering groups for Qualcomm Halo technology are in Munich, Germany, and Zurich, Switzerland.

Pazol said he also sees hybrid vehicles that combine electric and gasoline-power as an opportunity for wireless charging systems, because people often don’t bother to plug them in.

Lear, Qualcomm’s latest licensee, is a significant global partner, Pazol said. But it is not the only one. Qualcomm has signed similar deals with Ricardo, a British engineering consultant; Switzerland’s BRUSA , Portugal’s Efacec; and England’s Chargemaster. Pazol said he expects to sign up more licensees by the end of this year.

Qualcomm typically grants a royalty-bearing license to develop, make, and supply wireless EV charging systems based on Qualcomm Halo technology, with technical expertise, reference designs, tools, software, and engineering support provided by Qualcomm Technologies.

The auto industry’s “tier 1” suppliers (the most important member of a supply chain, supplying key components directly to automakers) typically don’t invest much in research and development, Pazol said. So Qualcomm has been working closely with tier 1 suppliers and major automakers, as well as automotive standards organizations like SAE International and International Electrotechnical Commission.

One area of active R&D is in boosting the charging system’s capacity, which makes it possible to charge EV batteries faster, Pazol said. A 3.3-kilowatt charger typically takes about 8 hours to fully charge an electric vehicle, Pazol said. A 7.2-kilowatt charger developed by Qualcomm Halo is expected to take half as long, and an 11-kilowatt system is in the works.

And then there is the FIA Formula E championship series for electrically powered “formula” race cars. After two seasons, Pazol said major auto manufacturers are looking at the sleek, Le Mans-type EVs as a way to showcase their innovations and drive new technology.

The electric vehicle industry feels like it’s accelerating, Pazol said, and so are wireless electric vehicle charging systems.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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