That handy 12-volt charging port above your car’s cup-holders traces its lineage to the days when many people not only smoked but smoked while they drove.
Believe it or not, those little round sockets started out as sources of electrical current for car cigarette lighters. They housed small cylinders with metal coils that heated up when you pushed them in to activate the juice. The popularity of smoking waned over the years, but the sockets found new life — repurposed as electrical outlets to charge up your phone or connect your MP3 player to the car stereo.
They adapted to survive changes in public sentiment, anti-tobacco campaigns and the Surgeon General’s Office. However, can the sockets survive technology?
Automakers are investing in a new kind of feature — in-car wireless charging systems for phones, laptops and all kinds of portable gadgets. Instead of sockets and cords, the devices use non-skid charging pads and charging sleeves.
Chevy puts a charge into the Volt
Fittingly enough, the first General Motors car to feature a wireless charger was the 2011 model of the electric hybrid Chevrolet Volt. GM made the wireless charger available in many additional models starting in 2012.
GM jumped into wireless charging with so much enthusiasm that the company invested $5 million in Powermat Technologies, the industry leader in wireless power platforms. Other automakers expected to emerge as big players in the wireless charger trend include Volkswagen, Audi, Volvo and Dodge.
Less efficient and still not universal
These in-car devices work by inductive charging, which involves the transfer of energy through electromagnetic waves. You’ve seen the same kind of technology at work on an induction stove, which can heat a pot of water to the boiling point while the stovetop itself remains at room temperature.
The only major problem with inductive chargers is that they’re less efficient than connected systems by as much as 10 to 20 percent. Also, organizations like the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) are still working to establish a global standard for interoperability across product lines — so that the phone you can charge in a Chevrolet can also be charged in a Volkswagen, etc.
A high-tech sign of the times
The auto industry’s interest in wireless chargers reflects the public’s growing attachment to personal gadgets, whether it’s at home, at work or even on the road.
Another example is the development of personal hotspot devices like the CLEAR Spot, which work in cars, campers and even boats inside any of the CLEAR network’s 4G coverage areas.
If the companies that make the cars and the chargers can work out the technological kinks, who knows? The dashboard charger could finally outlive its usefulness and fade into obscurity along with ashtrays and AM radios.