Swapping Electric Car Batteries May Not Be As Silly As It Seems
Way back at the beginning of the electric car revolution, there were few EV chargers available. So what were people supposed to do when the batteries in their spiffy new electric cars ran out of electrons? That question weighed heavily on the minds of Elon Musk and his band of merry pranksters. What was the best way forward? Charging stations or battery swapping?
In June of 2013, Elon Musk tweeted an invitation to his followers to drive over to Hawthorne, California, to witness the opening of Tesla’s first (and only) battery swapping station. Almost nobody showed up. The process proved to be complex and slow. Shortly after that, Tesla declared battery swapping was a dead end and switched its strategy to building out its Supercharger network.
Another startup, Better Place, raised almost $1 billion on the promise of 5-minute battery swapping, but ended up in bankruptcy. The rest, as they say, is history. Superchargers now dominate EV charging and have inspired a slew of imitators from Electrify America to Ionity, ChargePoiht, EVGo, Blink, and several others.
But just when it seems charging has carried the day, companies like Nio are reviving the battery swapping idea. Nio has completed more than 2 million battery swaps in China and is starting to build swapping stations in Europe in advance of its overseas marketing drive.
Advantages Of Battery Swapping
There are actually a number of advantages to swapping over charging. The cost of the car can be separated from the cost of the battery pack, making EVs more affordable for some drivers. Yes, there is a leasing fee for the battery, but the purchase cost plus the leasing fee may be less than financing the combined purchase price.
That’s the financial side. From a practical point of view, swapping makes it possible to always have the latest spec technology installed in your car. Concerns about battery degradation and warranties are eliminated — a big part of the reason some people are hesitant to embrace the idea of driving an electric car. Last but not least, owners can select and pay for a smaller battery when they don’t need to drive long distances, but opt for larger batteries with more range for those two weeks a year when they want to take the family on vacation. How cool is that?
Remember 30 years ago when personal computers where becoming popular? It seemed Intel and AMD were bringing out faster, more powerful processors on a weekly basis. The old joke was that your brand new computer was obsolete by the time you got it home and took it out of the box. Imagine if someone had been smart enough to lease computers so we could upgrade conveniently to the latest spec equipment whenever we wanted to? IBM did that with mainframe computers and leveraged that idea to become the leading computer company in the world for a time.
Say Hello To Ample
Khaled Hassounah co-founded Ample — a battery swapping company — nearly 7 years ago. Until recently, it has operated in stealth mode outside of public view. “The idea is very, very simple, which is instead of trying to move energy in energy form … you move energy physically,” Hassounah tells GreenBiz. The company raised a Series C funding round of $160 million in August and a $50 million investment in November, bringing its total backing so far to $280 million.
The plan is to build a number of battery swapping stations — each about the size of two parking spaces — and place them at gas stations, grocery stores, or along the side of the road. Once in place, participating electric vehicles can pull up and have a robotic arm swap in freshly charged, “Lego-like” modular batteries. The entire process takes only about 10 minutes. Ample uses small battery modules that can be added together to fit a wide range of vehicles. The modules are lighter and easier to swap than conventional battery packs.
The company is positioning itself as a solution for fleet and commercial applications. In fact, Ample’s first installation is in the San Francisco Bay Area and involves a fleet of Uber drivers. Hassounah describes TaaS as the “most challenging use case” that could prove the technology for other types of fleets. Ample has also partnered with Sally, an electric vehicle rental company, to expand the concept to New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
The appeal of battery swapping, Hassounah says, is two-fold. Fleet managers can avoid the cost of installing lots of charging stations and their vehicles can recharge in a matter of minutes, not hours, much as they would at a gas station. “Once you make [electricity] work like gas, you can get a lot of very large fleets able to make the transition more seamlessly,” Hassounah says. Electric taxis are not a new concept. Check out this video of an electric taxi fleet in Spain in 1943.
Tapping into Ample’s network of battery swapping stations costs no money upfront. The company covers the expense of building the stations and then charges users a per-mile cost for the energy delivered. Hassounah says the company’s technology ends up being about 20% less expensive than gasoline.
The Ample stations charge the individual modules quickly and cheaply with no electrical infrastructure upgrades. The stations simply plug into the grid and charge the batteries gradually when energy is cheapest and most abundant. Hassounah says that it takes Ample about 6 weeks to outfit a new city or depot with a network of swapping stations.
Ample is not looking to attract drivers who can plug in conveniently at home. Its goal is fleets and travelers for whom convention charging simply takes too long. Time is money, and cars that are plugged into a charger are not generating revenue. Some people will be happy to pay for the ability to go over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house more quickly when it’s time to travel longer distances.
Does This Make Sense?
Tech savvy CleanTechnica readers will have lots of questions. EV manufacturers may be none to keen on the idea that some Terwilliger on the side of the road is going to rip out the factory battery and replace it with someone else’s product. What about coolant and IP issues? What about new cars that make the battery pack an integral part of the chassis? It is probably no coincidence that the car featured by Ample is a Nissan LEAF, a perfectly fine short range EV with an air-cooled battery.
On its website, Ample says its fully automated system “can easily work with any EV design. It can act as a drop-in replacement for the original battery design. We have already integrated into many existing platforms by working closely with automakers.” We are not aware of any manufacturers rushing to embrace the Ample business model, but it does seem there are use cases where this idea could make economic sense.
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