DETROIT – Delphi’s Packard electrical/electronics unit has a legacy dating back 120 years with a product range that has graduated from incandescent light bulbs, wiring harnesses and connectors.

Today, the division is staking its future on the success of battery-electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.

Delphi Packard’s product portfolio now includes high-voltage connectors and conduit to manage the flow of electricity onboard these vehicles, as well as a portable charging unit and a higher-capacity stationary charger for residential and commercial applications.

Despite the high visibility these components receive by sharing the spotlight with electric cars, they generate a miniscule share of Packard’s annual revenue and produce little income, admits Delphi Packard President James Spencer.

“We think it’s going to come; it’s going to grow,” Spencer says of the market for EVs. “All the industry experts think it’s going to grow. We want to be ready and we want to participate.”

Although California is acting quickly to establish an infrastructure for EVs, Spencer sees the U.S. dragging its heels while China, Japan, Korea and much of Europe are moving more aggressively.

At the recent SAE International World Congress here, Delphi held a private suite for displaying its technologies for customers.

Generating the most interest was a hands-free wireless charging device that uses magnetic resonance plates to charge an EV’s battery. The driver never has to touch a cord or a coupler.

The first square magnetic coil or plate – about the size of a base on a baseball diamond – weighs 22 lbs. (10 kg) and is mounted to the floor of a garage or in a parking lot and hardwired to electrical service.

The second coil is mounted to the underside of the vehicle. Once the EV is parked above the stationary plate, the system is active and electricity begins flowing into the vehicle through the two coils to charge the battery.

Precise alignment of the two plates is not necessary for resonance. As long as the coils are within 8 ins. (20 cm) of each other, Delphi engineers say the system will work.

“We can eliminate the need to have to remember to plug in and deal with cords,” says Randy Sumner, director-global hybrid vehicle development at Delphi Packard.

The system, developed in conjunction with WiTricity Corp., is configured to accommodate 3.3 kW of electricity and charge vehicles in the same amount of time (as quickly as four hours) as a dedicated Level 2 plug-in station rated at 240V, requiring 16-amp service.

Sumner says the marketing plan calls for the device to be available as the next generation of EVs arrives around 2015. Delphi expects to announce within the next six months “a couple customers” for the wireless charging units.

“It will give us enough time to get this perfected, road-hardened, integrated into different customers’ architectures,” he tells Ward’s.

If the wireless concept catches on, Spencer says retailers could place the units in mall parking lots, and users could charge their vehicles while they shop and pay through a transponder system like those used on toll roads.

The goal is to price the wireless system to compete directly with the Level 2 plug-in charging stations currently available. For now, those prices fluctuate wildly, from less than $500 to several thousand dollars when installation is included. Federal tax credits soften the bite.

Owners who intend to use their EVs often may be motivated to pay the price for a Level 2 unit at home, as it cuts in half the time necessary to charge when plugged into a standard 120V wall socket. Charging the all-electric Nissan Leaf in this way can take about 20 hours.

Sumner says every auto maker working on an EV program is interested in wireless charging. “It’s the reason we’re here,” he says of the Delphi exhibit. “We’ve moved from the lab, and we’ve proven it works. We’ve actually demonstrated it now on a car.”

The competing technology requires inductive charging, which uses an electromagnetic field to remotely transfer energy to the battery. But Sumner says that process requires the charging coils to be in much closer proximity, which makes it less convenient.

“We think this gives us that added advantage because the pads can be relatively small, and they can be off a little bit and still charge,” he says of Delphi’s wireless system, adding that the necessary 8-in. air gap compares with standard ground clearance for many vehicles.

A downside to the technology is the added cost. An EV developed for wireless charging still will need a standard port to accommodate a J1772 coupler, so the vehicle can take a conventional plug-in charge. That redundancy will carry a cost penalty.

Sumner refers to studies that suggest two chargers will be needed for every EV on the road, to alleviate “range anxiety” among owners. As a result, he doesn’t expect wireless charging methods to dominate the market or displace conventional units.

“Even though we talk about wireless, all those technologies will co-exist for quite a while,” Sumner says. “We want to have a position in all of those to take advantage of them.”

Beyond the wireless system, Delphi offers an entire suite of charging devices, including the type of portable units that come with the Leaf and Chevrolet Volt and allow 120V charging from standard wall sockets.

Developed with EV-charging specialist ClipperCreek, the cordset was approved last year by Underwriters Laboratory Inc. for residential use. Sumner says contracts calling for Delphi to supply future EVs with the portable units are “imminent.”

Packard also has collaborated with ClipperCreek on more powerful charging devices. Initially, Delphi supplied ClipperCreek with the high-voltage multi-core cable and J1772 connector for 240V charging docks.

But today, Delphi manufactures and sells those devices directly to auto makers, and ClipperCreek supplies the circuit boards. The marketing push now is extending to China and Europe. A new 30-amp system cuts in half the necessary charging time from four hours to two.

Delphi has supplied Ward’s with a 240V ClipperCreek charging station to facilitate EV charging. “ClipperCreek’s been a great partner,” Spencer says.

Although chargers, wiring systems and connectors for hybrids and EVs remain a small part of Packard’s business, Spencer predicts they will be core to the division moving forward as the post-bankruptcy Delphi continues to emphasize new technology.

“We think we made some very smart calls during a very difficult time in our history when money was tight,” he says. “But we decided to do it, and right now we’re very pleased.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com