Volkswagen says it has created a prototype electric vehicle charging robot concept that was first showcased in proof of concept form at the end of 2019 and plans to continue developing the idea. The German carmaker seems to like the concept so much that the charging robot prototype looks almost identical to the concept version, complete with blinking digital eyes and R2-D2 sound.
The robot – which, surprisingly for Volkswagen, doesn’t have a tacky or cute name – works quite simple in theory. When you park an electric vehicle in a parking garage, you (or your car) can request that the battery be recharged. The robot detaches from its docking station, hooks up to one of a dozen cellular batteries then drags to your car. The robot plugs in the battery to your car and then returns to its station, ready to charge another charge request. When your car is finished charging (or you’re back from your job), the robot collects the battery and brings it back to the charging rack, stopping to let other cars and pedestrians pass along the way.
It’s a fun idea, even though there are several possible failures that Volkswagen didn’t address in Monday’s press release. First, the charging robot relies on a car connected to the entire network (known in the industry as the V2X, or “vehicle to everything”) to communicate with the robot. But it’s an idea that hasn’t survived, and one that’s fraught with uninteresting but still basic issues like arguing over which standard to use.
Additionally, calling this version of the charging robot a “prototype” implies Volkswagen has gotten a working version, but the company didn’t actually show it in action as part of Monday’s announcement. Instead, Volkswagen released only “first glimpse,” which involved only a glossy ad for the robot and a few photos. Auto-charging is an idea Volkswagen has been thinking about for a long time, and while it’s not alone, it’s one of the few large companies that seem actively involved in making it happen.
Volkswagen is already building large fast-charging networks in the US (Electrify America) and Europe (Ionity) as part of a bigger redemption for the Dieselgate scandal. Something like this robot may seem like a more free charging solution. But fast-charging networks aren’t really for routine use; conversely, most electric car owners will do most of their charging at home or in parking buildings. So finding ways to make it easier is a worthy goal.
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The charging robot is likely not the ultimate solution either, although it ends up working fine. Volkswagen is already testing different ideas in parts of China and in its hometown of Wolfsburg, Germany, which involves placing the battery inside what looks like a pillar of a more standard charging station. This allows charging stations to build energy stores that can be used to quickly charge electric vehicles, even if the local grid is unable to distribute that much electricity at once. Volkswagen said on Monday that it planned a wider rollout of its so-called “flexible quick-charging stations” in early 2021. However, one drawback of these stations: no blinking eyes.