Speaking with Tritium’s James Kennedy

From solar racing cars to deep sea challenges, this fast-charging Australian company continues to push the limits of EV technology.

The Australia-based Tritium company—developer and manufacturer of the award-winning range of Veefil fast chargers for electric vehicles—was born on the starting line of the 1999 World Solar Challenge. The Challenge is a landmark biennial race for solar-powered vehicles that crosses the Australian outback, covering 1,864 miles of bone-dry, scorching desert in around four days.

1999 SunShark

Building a solar racer for the 1999 World Solar Challenge across Australia was the starting point for the EV charging company called Tritium. (Image source: University of Queensland)

In the 1999 event, three undergraduate engineering students at the University of Queensland in Brisbane were competing as the SunShark team, pitting the motor inverter they had developed on a shoestring against technology from some of the world’s premier car makers. A third place finish in the grueling event proved to the young engineers that they might just have a product upon which they could build a business. Two years later, David Finn, Paul Semia, and James Kennedy took what they had learned from solar racing and formed Tritium, operating as a micro-business and selling the Gold Controller, the inverter product which was used in the SunShark.

What Would Be Next?

“We knew we wanted to start a business having something to do with high-power electronics, because of what we had done on the solar car,” James Kennedy, Tritium’s engineering director and cofounder, told Design News. “We weren’t exactly sure what we wanted to do, but we had the one motor controller that we had built for our car—that one product was enough to start a business and we grew from there.” During that period of time, there were almost no commercially available electric vehicles. Most battery-powered vehicles were being built by hobbyists and dreamers. “Our initial market was literally just selling to solar car teams, which are nearly all university teams worldwide. It’s a tiny market,” said Kennedy. During the first few years, Tritium was a part-time venture, as Kennedy had a day job at another company, and his partners Finn and Semia were both pursuing PhD degrees.

Eventually, Kennedy quit his job to begin working for Tritium full time, and the company began building high-power inverters for individuals and small companies that were converting gasoline and diesel cars into electric drive. “It was a tiny market, but we were selling worldwide—that’s one of the key things,” said Kennedy. “Right from the beginning with Tritium, our main markets were outside of Australia. We were probably selling 20 or 30 motor controllers a year—probably 90 to 95 percent of them were outside Australia,” Kennedy told us. “We got quite good early on at supporting this high-tech equipment remotely, via phone calls and email. We were a tiny company, we didn’t have the budget to go flying all around the planet, so we got good at diagnosing problems and writing out software, working with customers.” That early experience at remote customer service was very helpful as the company began to grow.

Trinity chargers

Tritium’s Veefill fast DC chargers are becoming popular all over the world. (Image source: Tritium)

Same Electronics, Different Mode

“We saw the electric vehicle market starting to take off. Although a motor controller and a fast charger appear to be two very different things, from an electronics view, they are very similar,” said Kennedy. “The motor controllers we did are three-phase motor drives—they take DC (direct current) in from the battery pack, and put out three-phase AC (alternating current) out to run the motor. But they can run in reverse too,” he said. The fast charger that Tritium developed pulls three-phase AC from the utility grid and puts DC into the car’s battery. “The guts of our motor controller is the same as our fast charger. It is literally the same electronics, just running different software that makes it operate in a different mode,” he told us.

Tritium was timely and successful with its DC fast charger. It now has several thousand chargers deployed worldwide, all with 3G or 4G modems that allow data to be collected from each charger while enabling remote diagnostics and updates to be performed. As charging has gone from just a few kilowatts up to a hundred kilowatts or more, Tritium’s experience with high-power electronics has made it a significant player. “The higher the power, the more it has to be DC charging,” said Kennedy. “We are not using any on-board charging in the vehicles at those power levels, and we see higher and higher (charging) power levels as a key enabler of electric vehicles. With larger battery packs and longer ranges, we are looking at high power charging with power levels up to 350 kilowatts,” he said.

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