A group of ridesharing, delivery, and municipal fleets in the Bay Area of California will soon be swapping batteries instead of fast charging. They’re working with Ample, a company that just publicly announced its technology after 7 years of under-wraps development.
“When we set out to work on this challenge, it was clear to us that ubiquitous electric car adoption is hindered by the shortcomings of charging options available today,” the company said in a press release. “Urban areas and fleets have had slow uptake of electric vehicles due to slow charging speeds, high deployment cost and long construction time.”
The company is using a modular battery system that is compatible with any electric vehicle. Instead of trying to swap the vehicle’s factory battery pack, they replace it with an aftermarket pack that is made of smaller modules. When someone pulls into the swap station, the automated swapping machine removes the modules one at a time and replaces them with freshly-charged modules.
The company didn’t give any details on what it takes to have its modular pack installed, but once it is installed, swaps happen in under five minutes and for less than the cost of gasoline per mile. This allows drivers to go from 0-100% as fast as pumping gas.
The stations don’t have to be installed permanently at a location, either. Like NIO in China, Ample’s battery swap stations are portable. They take up the same space as two parking spaces, so they can be added in existing parking areas, on vacant lots, or anywhere else that there’s some extra space. If needs change, the stations can be quickly relocated to accommodate them. Grocery stores, gas stations, and even highway rest areas are all great places that these can be put.
The stations are fully autonomous, so no staff are needed on site. The machinery removes freshly charged modules from a shelf, and then puts the depleted modules on the shelf, where they immediately start charging.
Because there’s no need to hire staff, get building permits, or do any of the other things that make infrastructure expensive, it’s possible for Ample to fully equip a city or a region with these stations in a matter of weeks. Compared to putting in DC fast chargers, it’s a lot cheaper, easier, and faster.
Unlike DC fast chargers, this battery swap system will only work with vehicles that have been retrofitted with the modular battery packs. At present, this limits their use to vehicles that have had that done, so their rollout will be small scale for now. The upside is that they’ll be able to get a lot of data working with fleets in the Bay Area and get a better understanding of how drivers would actually use the technology. That will make future rollouts a lot more successful.
The company says that it’s presently in talks with a number of automakers and other partners to work toward mass deployment.
Why This Matters
When I first saw this announcement come through by e-mail, I was skeptical. We’ve seen battery swap concepts come and go a lot in the United States. This includes Tesla’s brief flirtation with the technology. They say that customers didn’t want to use swapping stations, while writers like Edward Niedermeyer point out that the limited deployment of battery swapping had government subsidy benefits that were taken advantage of while the technology wasn’t widely offered to the public.
At the same time, though, China shows us that battery swapping can go mainstream. NIO’s stations are very similar to what Ample is starting to offer, with autonomous swapping in stations that aren’t permanently installed. These have been placed all over the country, allowing travel on many routes without having to wait at charging stations.
They’re also widely used by city commuters. One person I was talking to said that he never charges the car at all. When his NIO gets down to 100 km of range, he stops in for a battery swap. When someone can’t charge at home because they live in apartments or in a rental property that won’t allow them to install a charging station, battery swapping is a compelling option that keeps the need for charging from getting in the way.
Another benefit to this is that the battery modules don’t have to fast charge.
The obvious benefit is that they aren’t going to wear out as fast. DC fast charging is hard on battery packs, limiting their lifespan and also causing the vehicle to lose range faster than a car that mostly charges at home. I’ve seen this with my own Nissan LEAF, and many other drivers have seen the downsides to rapid charging. Because the battery modules can sit on a shelf, they can charge at their ideal rate (usually level 2).
Another benefit to slower charging and sitting on a shelf is that the modules can be charged at the best time to take advantage of renewable energy. If the batteries are charged up during the day and used later at night for a delivery driver to finish up the dinner rush, they’re picking up solar power from the grid that otherwise might have gone to waste. This makes the whole technology cleaner, while also possibly allowing it to charge when electricity is cheaper (depending on the market).
One downside is that battery swapping is probably not that useful for many current EV drivers. If a driver’s daily needs are well covered by the vehicle’s range and they’re able to charge at home, then the need for rapid charging and/or battery swapping is pretty rare. For that reason, the average private vehicle owner with a place to charge at night won’t see much benefit from this.
That’s why it makes so much sense for Ample to start working with fleets. I know from my own experience doing Uber and Lyft driving in an EV that being able to quickly get back on the road is extremely helpful. The key for technologies like this will be to serve vehicles with a high utilization rate. That’s where they’ll truly be the most useful.
Featured image provided by Ample.