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South Korea Steers Toward Electric Auto Future

  • Kurt Achin

Former U.S. President Clinton and mayors from around the world are gathering in Seoul this week for a summit on reducing greenhouse gases in the world's cities. London Mayor Boris Johnson says the leaders hope to agree on ways to end the world's "endless addiction to the internal combustion engine." South Korean scientists are proposing a "middle of the road" solution.

At South Korea's leading technology university, the electric car of the future does not require a pit stop to charge or change batteries - because it draws its power right from the road itself.

The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, headquartered in Daejeon, about 150 kilometers from Seoul, is working on a vehicle it calls "OLEV." That stands for Online Electric Vehicle.

At this point, it looks like a souped up golf cart. But engineering professor Cho Dong-ho, the manager of the OLEV program, says some revolutionary technology is on board.

"This model [has] a power supply system installed under the ground," said Cho.

An experimental track at KAIST features power cables buried under a strip in the road, over which the car passes. Magnetic receivers on the bottom of the car siphon power over the airwaves, with no physical connection, recharging the battery. The power charging strips are designed to be installed at intersections and other places where traffic slows down naturally, so vehicles can derive the maximum charge.

Professor Cho says the technology will have big benefits - but will take some time to implement.

He says widespread use of the technology will automatically solve many of Korea's environmental and fuel scarcity problems. The key challenge, he says, will be building a reliable and extensive infrastructure.

He says if current trials are successful, a field trial is planned in the South Korean capital. After that, other local cities will get a chance to adopt the online electric vehicle.

One of the key attractions of the model is that it eliminates the need for countless individual charging stations for each vehicle, or the need to swap out batteries on a continual basis. Instead, the online road strips are connected to larger charging stations, which South Korea intends to charge mainly through nuclear plants.

Cho says the online vehicle is a cost-effective solution for mass transit planners.

He says the main competitors of this electric vehicle are electric subways and trams. However, establishing subways costs about $10 million a kilometer, and about $5 million per kilometer for a tram line. By contrast, he says online electric vehicle power strips will cost only about $400,000 per kilometer.

Cho says the technology has proven safe to use around people and machinery in all experiments so far. Future power strips will be designed big enough for use by large buses at first, then by smaller online electric cars later on. Each of the vehicles are designed to be able to switch to "battery mode," so they can depart from the charging strips and drive anywhere at all for a limited period of time.

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