Features

Joe Benz – WiTricity 

WiTricity attorney energized by company’s new EV charging technology 

The turn away from vehicles powered by internal combustion engines to electric vehicles is sharpening. For instance, the industry website InsideEvs reports more than 750,000 new all-electric cars were registered in the U.S. in 2022—a 57 percent increase from the year before. With that, EVs reached a 5.6 percent market share—up from 3.1 percent. 

With states, most notably California, mandating more zero-emission vehicles for public and private use, the market share for EVs of all sorts will inevitably increase. And yet, there’s still bumps in the road. U.S. News and World reports consumer concerns about costs and vehicle range remain, though buyers can receive federal tax credits of as much as $7,500 and the distance vehicles can travel before recharging is now frequently surpassing 250 miles. 

Then there’s the charging itself—consumers aren’t thrilled about the one or two hours needed to recharge a battery that’s empty and the lack of public charging stations. And, as Joe Benz says, the plug-in charging technology, whether used at home or out on the road, is still a concern and sometimes an inconvenience. 

As general counsel and chief legal officer for WiTricity, Benz is helping the company transform EV charging with wireless platforms. No more plugging in—or driving away when you’re still plugged in—just park over a pad and power up. 

However, getting EV manufacturers charged up to provide the wireless technology in new vehicles or as aftermarket retrofits remains a challenge requiring him to muster his legal acumen to negotiate and draft a plethora of service and vendor agreements throughout the industry. 

“This will change the future of electric vehicles and change the course of sustainable traveling the U.S. and the world,” Benz says. “However, there’s a whole infrastructure here that needs to be built out to allow us to achieve this goal.”  

Inroads to new tech 

Headquartered in Watertown, Massachusetts, WiTricity was founded in 2007 by MIT Professor Marin Soljačić (pronounced Soul-ya-cheech), who began experimenting with wireless charging technology because he was tired of hearing his cell phone beep when it to be plugged in because the battery was low. He and his colleagues began experimenting with electric power transfers that didn’t require plugs and their success led to the business venture, according to the company website. 

WiTricity’s Halo wireless charging systems are similar to charging pads for phones or other devices. They’re considered Level 2 chargers as a transmitter in the platform sends a charge to a receiver in an EV. Charging from empty to full takes no more time than the conventional plugs currently used.  

Benz says the company began shifting to become a manufacturer as much as a tech solutions provider in early 2022 and it anticipates the retrofit technology for existing vehicles will be on the market in the fall. Having the technology installed in new EVs will take longer because auto makers have development cycles that need to be considered. 

So, Benz is working with his vice president of manufacturing creating the vendor and sales agreements, and addressing supply chain and shipping issues, and import and export issues surrounding making the wireless platforms, transmitters and receivers. 

“We need key alliances with partners that help us facilitate our goal of integrating this technology in these vehicles,” Benz says. 

However, WiTricity isn’t looking to offer wireless charging technology that would be unique to each brand such as a Tesla or a Chevy Volt, for instance. So, Benz is working with SAE International and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers as well as European and Asian organizations to create standards as the technology evolves and governments look to create regulatory guidelines. 

“This technology exists here and now, it’s not futuristic. Whether we are partners or competitors, we have to work together to make sure the standards are practical,” Benz says. “It’s not a question about the technology—it’s about the economics of the adoption.” 

He’s also involved in government relations, which is crucial as the federal government invests more in EV and driverless vehicle technology. While providing funding to states, the federal government is requiring them to develop plans on adopting EVs and charging infrastructure, and Benz and WiTricity work with state departments of transportation so funding and regulation can make room for a variety of technology. 

Always of service 

Benz says his work at WiTricity is a new extension of his desire to have a life of service. He followed his father’s footsteps into the military, although he’s a West Point graduate and his dad served in the Air Force. After earning his bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1990, he served five years as a platoon leader, battery commander and aide-de-camp in assignments including Fort Bliss, Texas, and Bitburg, Germany. 

After his active duty in the Army, Benz joined Cisco Systems as a senior program manager in May 1997. 

While at Cisco and its Scientific Atlanta division, Benz began studying at at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. He earned his J.D. in 2003 and went into private practice as an associate with the firm of Alton & Bird, then became a litigation associate with Townsend and Townsend and Crew LLP in 2006. Benz also practiced with two other Atlanta-area firms and was called back to active duty in Afghanistan in 2016. 

In September 2017, when he’d returned to the U.S., Benz went in-house as chief IP counsel, president and chief operating officer for Ford Global Technologies. In that role, he advised senior management in areas including M&A, transactions, contracts, litigation and artificial intelligence with a focus on intellectual property. 

In May 2020, Benz became chief counsel for IP with Boeing, then joined WiTricity in April 2022. 

Benz remains in the Army reserves, commanding a Virginia-based brigade that’s focused on responding to chemical, nuclear, biological, radiological threats or events. He’s a firm advocate for hiring veterans and members of the reserve. Service to country and company is not an either-or proposition, he says, because people in the military bring strong organizational and time management skills as well as training in technology and other fields to their civilian roles. 

“Employers need to give latitude,” he says. “WiTricity is incredibly supportive of my service and I am honored to serve the great people of this country in the manner I do.” 

View this feature in the Vanguard Spring I 2024 Edition here.

Published on: March 12, 2024

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