May 18, 2023 - Technology

Electric car battery swapping gets a reboot

A photo of an electric car parked inside one of Ample's quick battery-swapping stations.

Ample's drive-through battery swapping station. Photo courtesy of Ample

Charging an electric vehicle (EV) is a time-consuming burden — which is why the notion of battery swapping, dismissed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk and many others as unworkable, is still percolating.

Why it matters: Many drivers won't embrace EVs unless the refueling experience is as seamless as filling up a gas tank.

Driving the news: Ample, a California startup dedicated to battery swapping, is introducing a new streamlined station that cuts the process in half, to about five minutes.

  • That's about the time it takes to fill up a gas tank — and far less than the 30 minutes or more it takes to recharge most EVs at public fast-chargers.

Details: Ample's pre-fab stations can be deployed across a city in a matter of days. By installing multiple bays at a location, it can accommodate several cars at once.

  • Ample has been experimenting with battery swaps for Uber drivers in San Francisco, and recently expanded to Spain and Japan.
  • It also just signed a deal with EV maker Fisker to install its swappable batteries in the automaker's upcoming Ocean SUV.
  • Ample will initially target commercial operators, including ride-hailing and delivery vehicles, co-founder and CEO Khaled Hassounah tells Axios.

How it works: Ample makes modular battery packs that can be integrated into EVs of any size and swapped out when depleted.

  • The shoebox-size modules fit within an adaptor plate designed to match the shape and size of a given vehicle's original battery.
  • That flexibility means car manufacturers like Fisker can install a swappable Ample battery as an option at the factory.

When a vehicle approaches Ample's drive-through station, the bay door opens automatically.

  • Once parked inside, the driver initiates the battery swap using the Ample app.
  • The automated system identifies the vehicle's battery requirements and swaps the depleted battery pack with a fully charged replacement.

Flashback: Battery swapping has been tried before, with little success.

  • In the mid-2000s, Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi raised $900 million for a battery swap company called Better Place, which later folded.
  • In 2014, Tesla opened a single battery swap station in California, and then abandoned the idea in favor of expanding its Supercharger network.

The problem: EV batteries are cumbersome and there's no industry standard design.

  • Each battery is built specifically for integration within a given car's unique architecture. They're not plug-and-play like the AA or AAA batteries in flashlights.
  • It's impractical for each swapping station to store and service many different sizes and types of batteries, says Sam Abuelsamid, principal e-mobility analyst at Guidehouse Insights. "That gets really expensive, really fast."
  • Ample's modular design is meant to account for these issues.

Meanwhile: One fast-growing Chinese EV company, NIO, is using a standard battery in all six of its models.

  • Similar to Tesla's Supercharger network, its swapping stations are proprietary, open only to NIO customers.
  • 60% of NIO's 320,000 owners have opted to use one of its 1,383 Power Swap Stations in China and Europe, the company recently revealed.

The intrigue: NIO is adding about 1,000 more stations in China and up to 70 more in Europe this year to support what it calls "battery-as-a-service."

  • Under this model, buyers pay separately for the vehicle and the battery — making EV ownership more affordable for those willing to sign up for a monthly battery subscription.
  • In Norway, approximately 95% of users have opted for battery-as-a-service, NIO said.

The bottom line: Anything that makes EVs cheaper and refueling easier — whether it's battery swapping or more accessible charging — could help spur EV adoption.

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