On a Wednesday afternoon last month, an Uber Technologies Inc driver in San Francisco was about to run out of charge on his Nissan Leaf. Normally this would mean finding a place to plug in and wait for a half-hour, at least, but this Leaf was different.
Instead of plugging in, the driver pulled into a swapping station near Mission Bay, where a set of robot arms lifted the car off of the ground, unloaded the depleted batteries and replaced them with a fully charged set. Twelve minutes later the Leaf pulled away with 32 kilowatt-hours of energy, enough to drive about 209km, for a cost of US$13.
A swap like this is a rare event in the US The Leaf’s replaceable battery is made by Ample, one of the only companies offering a service that is more popular in markets in Asia.
In March, Ample announced that it had deployed five stations around the Bay Area. Nearly 100 Uber drivers are using them, the company said, making an average of 1.3 swaps per day.
Ample’s operation is tiny compared with the 100,000 public electric vehicle (EV) chargers in the US — not to mention the 150,000 gas stations running more than a million nozzles. Yet Ample’s founders Khaled Hassounah and John de Souza are convinced that it is only a matter of time before the US discovers that swapping is a necessary part of the transition to electric vehicles.
China, which is home to about half of the 7 million passenger EVs on the road as of last year, has more than 600 swapping stations and is on pace to have 1,000 by this year’s end, according to a tally by clean energy research group BloombergNEF.
“They’ve already made the determination that swapping has to be a significant part of the solution,” Hassounah said. “We don’t have enough deployment yet to realize that we need this in the US.”
However, even in China, where the swapping industry dwarfs that of the US, the technology is still only a small piece of the charging infrastructure.
In the US most investment so far has gone into building faster plug-in stations and batteries that can accept power quickly without overheating.
US President Joe Biden has proposed a target of 500,000 public chargers by 2030. His plan, which calls for scaling and improving fast-charging networks, makes no mention of battery swapping.
BURDEN ON GRID
Yet plug-in chargers come with limits that cannot be overcome simply by adding more. They are a burden on the power grid, expensive to build, and, even at their fastest, agonizingly slow compared with gas pumps.
Hassounah and De Souza founded Ample in 2014 and have raised about US$70 million to date from investors including the venture arms of oil and gas giants Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Repsol SA.
They have spent the past seven years studying how to swap batteries in a cheap, vehicle-agnostic way and believe they have finally cracked it.
For now, they are focusing on ride-hailing fleets, as professional drivers have the most need for fast charging.
Late last year, Ample entered a partnership with Uber to help coordinate with the fleet management services that provide drivers with vehicles, insurance and other services.
On Thursday, Ample announced a separate partnership with the fleet management service Sally, which specializes in making EVs available to ride-hailing and delivery drivers.
The two plan to work to together to deploy EVs and swapping stations in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Sally aims to have hundreds of Ample-ready Kia Niro EVs running in the Bay Area by the end of this summer and to begin offering swapping to drivers in New York by the fall.
Sally cofounders Nicholas Williams and Adriel Gonzalez have said the company chose to work with Ample because plug-in fast-charging options degrade batteries, come with high energy costs during peak use, and are too slow.
“We had a supercharging concept that would probably do it in 30 minutes, but that was really too long for us,” Williams said.
Drivers in San Francisco rent Ample-ready EVs from fleet management services, just as they would for a combustion-engine vehicle, and pay the fleet manager for their swaps at the end of each week. The fleets then pay Ample by the mile for the energy, with no upfront fees for installing stations.
The energy cost for fleets is typically 10 to 20 percent cheaper than gas, Ample has said.
“All the drivers that have used it have come over from gas vehicles,” De Souza said. “This is the first time they’re driving an electric vehicle.”
Most EV charging in the US happens at private chargers in driveways and garages, where drivers can use vehicle downtime to refill batteries slowly.
Swapping, at least in theory, offers an elegant solution to the problem of recharging EVs quickly without taxing the grid.
Where an ultra-fast charger acts as a firehose, delivering a rush of energy on demand, Ample’s system works like a garden hose, constantly filling small buckets and handing them over a few at a time.
However, so far, attempts at swapping in the US have come to nothing. Tesla Inc experimented with the technology in 2013, but soon abandoned it, opting instead to build its network of “Superchargers.”
The start-up Better Place, which planned to sell swappable batteries in its EVs, went bankrupt that same year, after raising nearly US$1 billion.
There are two basic reasons that the electric vehicle industry in the US has so far opted to plug-in rather than swap out.
The first is weight. Batteries are heavy. Every kilometer of range adds a few kilograms to the weigh of an EV battery, so a vehicle with 402km of range might be carrying a pack that weighs as much 454kg. Replacing a pack of that size is not as simple as swapping out a few D cells from a flashlight. Building a station that can handle these loads typically costs about US$1 million, De Souza said.
Ample tackles the weight problem by breaking the battery pack into pieces. The company uses a modular system of lithium-ion packs, each about the size of shoe box, and arranges them on trays. Each module holds about 3 kilowatt-hours of power and weighs about 13kg.
While dealing with heavy batteries is a chore, the biggest challenge for swapping is getting automakers to change the way they build EVs.
“Compatibility is a massive problem,” said Ryan Fisher, an analyst for electrified transport at BloombergNEF. “When you talk about doing it across multiple manufacturers, that becomes pretty complicated quite quickly.”
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