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Charged and Ready: A Look into CTEK, Battery Charging, and Its Wireless Future

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 4/9/2015 Nate Martinez

"You want to send me where?" I asked the friendly PR man over the phone. "A small town outside of Stockholm," he politely explained. "You'd check out their headquarters, meet the team, and see the battery chargers in action." A whirlwind deal. Other than having seen a CTEK charger in my roommate's storage bin, I hadn't any real-world experience with the brand.

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Frankly, I'd always pictured battery chargers as something you need in freezing climates. Perhaps reflexively, then, I checked the weather in Stockholm as I climbed aboard the plane. Ten degrees. Heading for the right place, I guess.

Fortunately, our arrival dinner in rural Sweden -- as well as my host's conversation -- was rich and warm. Although I can't say the same for the converted medieval dungeon (complete with resident ghosts who wander the premises) we were dining in.

As I smothered my warm roll with butter, the journalist at my right apparently committed a slight faux pas. "Your trickle chargers …" he started.

"Please don't call them trickle chargers," Jon Lind, CEO and chief marketing man at CTEK, politely corrected him. "We prefer ' smart chargers.' We don't do trickle chargers. Our chargers know when a battery is fully charged, and they stop charging. Trickle chargers do not."

Charged and Ready: A Look into CTEK, Battery Charging, and Its Wireless Future

As Lind went on to explain, smart chargers are the life-giving middlemen between a battery's terminals and a power supply, e.g. a standard wall outlet. A charging current can be applied to the battery through clamps, eyelets affixed to the terminals, or a cigarette socket adaptor in the case of hard-to-reach batteries. They're not only keepers of a battery's charge, but they can extend its lifespan by two to three times, we were told.

For instance, one of CTEK's more popular car chargers, the MUS 4.3 ($85), has an eight-step charging process that analyzes the battery (ranging from 1.2 to 110 Ah in size) and adjusts its charging based on what it finds. It regulates voltage, removes damaging sulfates from a battery's lead plates, tests the battery's acceptance of charge, and reconditions the battery if significant acid stratification (when acid and water separate) is found. Moreover, it preserves charge by sending a constant voltage to the battery once it has reached maximum capacity and monitors for any drops in charge levels.

As Lind continued his discourse, my eyes scanned his pullover jacket. Its sleeves were decorated with sponsor patches, including one I recognized: Rotax. Motorsports, I quickly learned, is in his blood (as well as in his teenage daughter's; she's a successful Swedish karting racer) and since his appointment in April 2013, racing has been a big part of his company's marketing strategy. Among CTEK's sponsorships is local racing superstar and two-time DTM champion Mattias Ekström (pictured here tearing up the ice in his 560-horse Audi S1 EKS RX).

The next morning we visited CTEK's headquarters set in the forested town of Vikmanshyttan -- a hamlet, really, with just 900 residents. The company (whose name actually doesn't stand for anything in particular, Lind said) was established here in 1997 by founder Bengt Wahlquist. But 2004 turned out to be CTEK's watershed year when it displayed updated products at the Automechanika tradeshow in Germany and was approached by a Porsche product manager, leading to CTEK's first OEM partnership.

"She said, 'This is absolutely what our customers want,' " Lind said. "We were offering their customers just what they wanted, a product they could have forever. It will never, ever overcharge. After that, it really took off."

Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Maserati, Bentley, Lexus, and every premium luxury brand in Europe followed suit (as has Corvette). However, he said that although "that's an important part of our business, it's not the majority -- that is the consumer side." Indeed, half of their business is consumer-related. And although it shipped more than 1 million chargers across the globe last year, CTEK's market share in the U.S is a paltry 2 percent. How come?

Education mostly, Lind said, or lack thereof. As they see it, the general U.S. consumer (and even a knowledgeable automotive enthusiast) doesn't understand that a battery can lose significant charge -- and lifetime -- when it sits for more than a few days. Another misconception among non-European consumers (like yours truly): Battery chargers are only for those who store their cars during harsh winters. Lind and his team beg to differ; batteries in sunny locations are equally susceptible to damage.

Most people don't understand the benefits of regular charging and fail to make the distinction between chargers. It's just not a priority.

"This is something that you probably have seen and used," Lind said as he pointed to a hulking box on the conference table. "Here's a typical old charger, what we call linear chargers. It's quite heavy stuff. Still, there are people out there who believe these [linear chargers] are doing the job in a correct way because they are heavy and produce a lot of current and voltage."

He lifted up a considerably smaller CTEK charger. "It's a problem getting people to understand that this one is doing a better job than [the linear charger]," he said. "I explain it like two-way communication: [Linear chargers] are one way, and you can boil the battery. [The CTEK unit] communicates with the battery, understands how the battery feels, and gives it the right treatment." Making this happen is a staff dominated by designers and engineers with a staggering number of laboratories -- sound rooms, arctic-cold and desert-heat simulators, water-submersion analysis chambers, and voltage and electrical safety test areas.

But what piqued my interest most were Lind's comments on where CTEK is headed. The company recently struck a deal with WiTricity to adapt their magnetic resonance battery charging technology for automotive use. In the not too distant future, driving your electric- or ICE-powered car into a driveway will mean automatically maintaining and restoring its battery. No wires to fuss with or outlets to find. It's the same concept some automakers ( BMW, Daimler, Nissan, and Toyota, to name a few) are exploring to make charging their electric vehicles easier.

Although CTEK's name recognition isn't strong in America (yet), the first thing I did after thawing out in L.A.'s perennial sunshine was confiscate my roommate's charger. Our long-term Subaru WRX STI 's battery was due for an overnight reconditioning.

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