Electric vehicle charging sucks on a whole bunch of levels. Ford is one automaker tackling those irritations seriously by addressing the practical issues, and its latest project with Dortmund University in Germany that was announced Thursday is a robot charger that makes it easier for disabled drivers to plug in.
Plugging a car into a charger can be difficult for disabled people because of the way chargers are positioned and the location of plugs on cars. If the charger is up on an inaccessible curb and the plug is on the side of the car where you need to bring it around then a wheelchair user faces some kind of unsolvable puzzle, rather than a straightforward charging experience.
There are many reasons people might not be able to handle a charging cable, which are only going to be more common in the near future. As charging gets faster, cables will need more cooling, and they'll be heavier and more unwieldy. It's also worth remembering that people are just bad at things, so chargers take a beating while folks are trying to work out which way round they need to go, whether it's the right type of plug, you know how it is. I mean, we're still putting diesel in gas-powered cars by accident on a fairly regular basis, as a species.
Ford has come up with a possible solutions—at least for some of our problems. At Dortmund University's campus, Ford built a charger that will plug in when a driver parks next to it and activates an app on their phone.
The regular charging cable is integrated into a robot arm that finds the charging point via machine vision (there's a camera attached to the arm) and then adjusts itself to plug in. The driver can then remain in the car or get out and do whatever they want to do, while the robot does its job.
Ford filmed a Mustang Mach-E using the charging point:
It's fairly ironic that the example, although it looks like the robotics work fine, is installed in one of those inaccessible locations. It's on a high curb and it looks like there might not be space between the curb and the back of the Mach-E for a wheelchair user. But otherwise, it's a working system.
I'm a disabled driver myself and I always love to see improvements specifically for us, but I think this has a broader appeal in making charging easier. Companies like ABB make a lot of the world's electric vehicle chargers and they are robotics specialists. Additionally, car companies use huge robots on assembly lines. So this is a pretty perfect area to start developing everyday robotics in.
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