As battery technology advances and capacities increase, recharging methods must keep pace. If EVs are to ever eclipse the internal-combustion engine, they’ll need to be equally easy-to-use, convenient and quick when it comes to topping off the juice. To that end, Volkswagen has announced an automated quick-charge system called e-smartConnect.

Currently, rapid DC charging requires the use of heavy, awkward cables. VW wants to take the responsibility of connecting these cables out of the hands of the driver and put it into the mechanical grip of a robot.

Using a lightweight “LBR iiwa” automaton from the German robotics company Kuka, the system fixes a low force/moment cable into the EV’s recharge socket automatically. The robot uses seven drive axles and integrated torque sensors to make sure the connection is snug, while an integrated camera on the robot’s gripping device calculates the socket position with millimeter-precision.

Paired with this is an automated parking system. To initiate the recharge process, the car communicates with the charging station, sharing information via a set profile, which is interpreted by the recharge station. The station then responds with exact coordinates on where the car should be positioned, which the automated parking system then executes.

Once the car is charged, the robot arm removes the charger from the car’s socket and stores it on the station, which is then transported via conveyor belt to the next EV awaiting electricity.

VW says this effectively takes the human element out of EV charging, ensuring “safe and reliable human-robot collaboration (HRC).”

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Why it matters

Don’t get me wrong – I like this kind of stuff. I find human-robot collaboration fascinating, and as automated systems become more ingrained in our daily lives, especially with regards to transportation, I expect things to become more convenient and easier to use.

There’s a lot of stuff going on here – robot arms, automated drive systems, transferred data – all to circumvent the (relatively small) hassle of parking and plugging in.

However, I don’t necessarily think things will get simpler, and this system is a fantastic example of why. There’s a lot of stuff going on here – robot arms, automated drive systems, transferred data – all to circumvent the (relatively small) hassle of parking and plugging in.

This seems, to me at least, to be an over-engineered solution to a relatively low-priority problem. Simply hooking up the cables necessary to charge an EV can be a bit of a pain, but the bigger problem with EVs, at least in my mind, is overall recharge times.

The traditional ICE-powered vehicle takes only a couple of minutes to gas up, whereas even the fastest “supercharger” stations take well over an hour to fill a depleted battery to full. And the problem isn’t in parking the car or plugging in, but the rate at which energy is transferred from the outlet to the battery pack. Simply put, we’re at the limit of the technology.

Of course, the technology is progressing quite rapidly and I expect average recharge times to fall dramatically in the next decade or so. In the meantime, the e-smartConnect system is just one more automated system to look out for as the robots begin their inevitable takeover. 

2016 Volkswagen e-Golf Limited Edition

Volkswagen Announces e-smartConnect - The Automatic Charging System High Resolution Exterior
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The next generation of electric vehicles will be equipped with higher-capacity batteries. Very high charging capability (from 80 to 150 kW or more) is needed if such energy storage devices are to be charged quickly. This can be achieved with rapid DC charging technology, but this approach also requires the use of thick cables. The weight and stiffness of such cables makes them difficult to handle. The research goal of the e-smartConnect project is therefore to automatically couple a DC connector to the vehicle. When such charging is carried out in conjunction with an automated parking feature, the process takes only a minimal amount of time and is extremely convenient and reliable.

Press Release</h3 Volkswagen AG is once again underscoring the leading role it plays in electric and automated drive systems — and is already looking ahead to the next generation of electric vehicles. The improvements Volkswagen has achieved with the energy density and capacity of its traction batteries will enable a range of more than 500 km in the foreseeable future. This will lead to "true electrification" of personal transport with a large volume of vehicles. In order to make charging times for such vehicles as short as possible — and the charging process as efficient and convenient as can be — engineers in Wolfsburg are working on an automated direct-current charging system, a so-called automated e-filling station "e-smartConnect".

The actual link between the DC connector and the vehicle is created via a low force/moment cable arrangement and the use of the "LBR iiwa" lightweight robot from Kuka. The robot’s seven drive axles and integrated torque sensors ensure a precise, force sensing, and reliable connection.

Automated parking: down to the last centimetre

The automated charging process begins with communication between the vehicle and the charging station. The electric vehicle transmits its profile data to the charging station, which then tells the vehicle’s automated parking system where it should park. In order to achieve the necessary precision (the DC outlet on the vehicle must be positioned within an area measuring 20 x 20 centimetres), the surrounding infrastructure is supported here by the vehicle’s own assistance systems. In addition, a camera mounted on the robot’s gripping device calculates the exact position of the socket down to the last millimetre. The robot then removes the DC connector from the charging unit and inserts it into the outlet. After this is done, the robot is automatically transported via a conveyor system to the next electric vehicle that needs recharging.

e-smartConnect ensures safe and reliable human-robot collaboration (HRC)

Once the charging process is complete, the robot receives a command to remove the DC connector. After this is done, the vehicle automatically leaves the charging area, making it available for the next car. This ensures optimal utilisation of charging station capacity.

The system is perfect for public use because e-smartConnect technology also monitors the entire process to ensure there is no danger of any harmful physical contact between the robot and people. Human-robot collaboration is thus made possible without any need for additional safety barriers.

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