So Who Will Plug In All The Driverless Electric Cars?

By Molly Fosco,

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.

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.