Battery-swapping is back, but can it work this time? The idea of changing out a vehicle’s battery in five minutes or less, mimicking the speed and convenience of a gas station, has long been the white whale of the electric vehicle industry.
It sounds easy, but there are challenges:
No standardization: Battery packs are not interchangeable between most vehicles.
Resource-intensive: In order to swap batteries, a provider needs extra batteries, which are the most expensive part of an EV and require difficult-to-obtain materials.
Hard to swap: The battery is often an integral part of the vehicle and cannot be easily removed and replaced.
Last week I saw Ample unveil its next-generation battery swapping station. The company claims the robotic arms in the new station can remove a depleted battery and replace it with a fully charged one in five minutes.
If the company scales, these stations would be welcome news for commercial EVs. Currently, one major barrier to commercial EV adoption is the lack of public charging infrastructure.
The five-minute battery replacement is key. As Ample noted on its website, fleet operators complain that "drivers could spend upwards of 10-12 hours, or 25 percent of a work week, at a charging station." Battery-swapping solves this problem.
And, for fleets that will own or lease charging depots, the costs of installing charging stations, especially fast-chargers, is a critical choke point. Ample has an answer for that too, claiming it can install a new station in three days. This is part of the design, as the stations sit above ground to avoid costly excavating.
In an interview, co-founder Khaled Hassounah said, "Initially we’re focusing on fleets. We’re saying, ‘If you drive a truck fleet or a passenger car fleet, etc., that’s where we’re starting because that allows us to build infrastructure.’"
Maintenance in mind
"You have to have maintenance be part of your strategy," Hassounah said. This is crucial because maintaining uptime and charging speeds remains a challenge with no easy answer.
Hassounah fleshed out his philosophy on maintenance:
"So if you think about it, there’s two aspects to maintenance. One of them is you build your robotics smart so they can tell you when something is wrong. The second is you build it so they’re redundant. You saw two robots inside [the station]. If one of them fails, the other actually can literally push it out of the way and continue working and then phone home and say, ‘Come fix me.’"
Solving for standardization
One major hurdle past battery-swapping companies faced was a lack of standardization among batteries. On the market now are a multitude of batteries. Some manufacturers use different battery configurations or chemistries in different models. And even among models, batteries can vary from year to year and trim to trim. It would not be cost-effective (or likely even possible) to store a compatible battery for every potential vehicle.
Ample intends to solve this by building its own modular battery. The battery is made up of shoebox-sized modules that can be swapped as needed. This will be an expensive endeavor, but Ample recently won a $15 million grant from the California Energy Commission to expand its battery production facility outside San Francisco.
Big challenges ahead
There is a glaring issue with Ample’s plan to swap only its own modular batteries: No EVs available in the U.S. use Ample battery packs. But Ample recently announced a partnership to build swappable batteries for Fisker, a small, California-based EV manufacturer that plans to begin shipping this year. Hassounah pointed out that Ample is in active but confidential conversations with five other manufacturers. Global automakers plan to invest upward of a half-trillion dollars in battery development, but it is unclear if any of that investment will go toward adopting a proprietary battery technology made to facilitate one company’s battery-swapping process.
Can Ample be the tail that wags the dog, moving the market toward battery standardization? That remains to be seen.
Can it work?
Ample, of course, is not the first company to try its hand at battery swapping. Tesla halfheartedly attempted battery-swapping back in 2013. And BetterPlace, a battery-swapping company valued at $1 billion, filed for bankruptcy. Currently, though, there is one example of success.
Nio, a Chinese automaker and charging station provider founded in 2014, developed a rapidly growing battery-swapping business with a unique model.
Its "battery-as-a-service" concept involved producing and leasing the battery separately from the vehicle to solve for the lack of battery standardization.
It has impressively performed 20 million battery swaps with 60 percent of its users opting into the service. And it entered the European market, notably partnering with Shell to begin opening swap stations in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. It plans to enter the U.S. market in 2025.
Ample needs manufacturers to adopt its batteries, or its stations simply will not work. But, considering the commercial electric fleet market is just beginning to take off, it's possible a yet-unknown manufacturer will take up the Ample battery and swapping technology for a fleet of commercial vehicles, perhaps last-mile delivery vans. We’ll have to wait and see.