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Cordless charging mats expected to help sagging electric car sales

Southfield — One reason electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles have hit the market with a thud is that there are strings attached: Drivers of models such as the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf must plug in to recharge the battery.

A number of companies are developing ways to cut the cord, to replenish the battery wirelessly with a mat that sits on the floor. Coils on the underside of the car engage the charger when the car is parked over them. The mats are plugged in while the car isn’t. Automakers and suppliers expect to have the chargers ready for sale around 2015.

“The feedback we see from initial Volt and Leaf buyers is that, ‘Gee, these cords get really dirty; gee, these cords get all tangled; what a pain in the neck,’ ” said Phil Gott, an IHS Automotive analyst specializing in power-train research. “A wireless charger truly gives you total freedom.”

Automakers are looking to such vehicles to comply with regulatory pressure to boost mileage and pare emissions. But electric and plug-in vehicles aren’t even considered by 96 percent of consumers globally, Deloitte LLP said in a 2011 survey.

Price and driving range deter purchases, as does charging time, which ranges from three to more than eight hours, Deloitte said. Tesla Motors, the electric-car maker that delivered its first wholly company-produced sedans last week, had said it’s close to announcing a plugged-in “supercharger” network that can re-power one of its cars in less than an hour.

Nissan, Delphi Automotive, Volkswagen’s Audi, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Qualcomm, Evatran and Brose Fahrzeugteile GmbH & Co. are among companies developing wireless chargers.

General Motors, the largest U.S. automaker and maker of the Chevrolet Volt, invested $5 million in a private company called Powermat and was joined by Procter & Gamble and Jay-Z last year. So far, GM says, it’s using the technology only to charge smartphones and other devices in the car.

The chargers work one of two ways: by induction, similar to the way the battery on an electric toothbrush charges when it’s set back on its base, or by magnetic resonance.

Delphi’s charger, using a technology developed by WiTricity, uses a magnetic field to transfer the charge between coils in the mat, about the size of a laptop, and bolted onto the underside of the car. The gap can be as wide as 10 inches (25 centimeters), depending on the car’s clearance, said Randy Sumner, Delphi’s director of hybrid electric vehicle business and technology development.
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