Ask any electric vehicle (EV) skeptic why they aren’t ready to adopt the technology and one of the reasons you’ll likely hear is lack of range. Despite batteries and drivetrains that now enable ranges as high as 400 miles, skeptics fear their car will be left dead on the side of the road without a charger in sight.
But as pressure to adopt EVs increases around the world, new solutions are needed to not only convince skeptics but also improve range.
Battery swapping may be the solution. What if rather than sitting to charge your car for half an hour, you could swap your battery for a new, fully charged one in minutes? This is the reality some EV enthusiasts and ambitious startups imagine.
The idea of battery swapping for electric cars isn’t new. Back in 2012, a startup called Better Place was working to bring the idea to life. But without support from major EV manufacturers and following the announcement of Tesla’s nationwide fast-charging network, the startup’s billion-dollar hopes fizzled.
Now, several companies are breathing new life into battery swapping, including Ample Inc., which seeks to make “a better Better Place,” according to founder Khaled Hassounah. Overseas, Chinese EV maker NIO aims to open 100 battery swap locations across Europe this year, adding to its 1000+ locations in Asia.
Ample’s vision for integrating battery swapping into daily life has investors and consumers buzzing. The startup’s autonomous swap stations cost less than $100,000 and fit in a shipping container, making it possible to set one up just about anywhere. According to Hassounah, that’s the plan.
“We want to be the gas station of electric,” he says.
When a driver needs to recharge, they simply drive into the station, which vaguely resembles an automatic carwash. A robot lifts the car a few feet before finding the battery pack and removing it. It then sets the old battery aside, where its charge is slowly topped off—negating the need for expensive high-voltage infrastructure required by fast chargers. Finally, the robot returns to install a fresh battery, lowers its platform, and the driver is ready to go with a full range of mileage at their disposal. The entire process takes just five minutes.
So, what should consumers expect to pay for a fresh battery pack? Ample has a few ideas for monetizing its swap stations. Getting a fresh 32-kilowatt-hour battery pack at one of Ample’s San Francisco stations costs $13, far less than filling up a tank of gas. But access to the station comes with a subscription fee, which is available to fleet customers for an undisclosed price. Currently, the stations are only available to ride sharing and delivery fleets as Ample perfects its model.
Notably, fleet customers can purchase EVs that come with or without their own battery pack. The latter rely on “rental” batteries that are swapped at Ample stations as needed. This “battery-as-a-service” model could be interesting
Elsewhere, Nio currently charges its European customers a flat rate of 10 euros per swap plus 20 euro cents for each kWh. Like Ample’s offering, Nio customers can choose to purchase their vehicle with the “battery-as-a-service” option, something that 92% of its Norwegian customers did. If the trend continues in the U.S. where EV opinions are much lower, it could be a sign of a major shake-up for the industry, though it’s unclear how American consumers would feel about not owning an essential component of their vehicle.
Some Teamwork Required
Of course, before battery swapping can flourish, there is a major roadblock to address—the batteries themselves. Today’s EVs come with a wide range of battery sizes, designs, and connections. Autonomous swapping stations use the same type of battery for each car.
Ample aims to solve this problem with modular battery packs that work with any type of vehicle. But automakers need to partner with the swapping startup to build removable adapter plates that make their vehicles compatible with the autonomous stations.
The startup currently works with five EV manufacturers and has designed adaptor plates for 20 models. It hopes to increase that number dramatically in the coming years. Cars from brands like Nissan, Fiat, Stellantis, and e.Go were all present at a recent demonstration of its next-generation swap station.
As more traditional automakers shift their lineups toward EVs, Ample’s ability to partner with them will make or break its success. The more brands its autonomous stations can serve, the more attractive they’ll be to consumers.
So, while it’s too early to tell if EV battery swapping will find success this time around, the technology is promising. Perhaps growing demand for electric cars and government legislation targeting fuel-powered vehicles will give Ample and other battery-swapping startups the boost they need to find a foothold in the mainstream.