If you’re in the market to buy or rent an EV, one of the many unfamiliar topics you might come across in your research is battery swapping: the potentially time-saving practice of stopping not to charge your vehicle’s battery, but to change it out for a fully-charged one.
Sounds convenient, right?
No need to park, plug in and put your day on hold for 30+ minutes; a drive-thru robotic swapping station (somewhat like a car wash) can have you back on the road in as little as 5 — an amount of time comparable to a petrol tank fill-up.
Well, if there’s one thing the interwebs rarely lack, it’s opinions — and the subject of battery swapping is no exception.
It’s a time-saver.
It has the potential to eliminate range anxiety.
The problems and downsides (more on those later) can be worked around – as with anything, it just takes some time to iron out the kinks.
Critics say that it’s one of those things that sounds great in theory, but in practice doesn’t work well and will ultimately be unnecessary.
The machinery necessary to carry out the swaps is expensive to install and maintain compared to charging points, which require little maintenance.
With the pace of improvement in technology, charging speeds will soon be fast enough that the time saved through battery swapping would be negligible or non-existent.
The battery capacity of EVs has improved to the extent that frequent recharging is no longer required and range anxiety may soon be a thing of the past, making concerns about charging time a moot point.
The level of cooperation it would require from car manufacturers (to ensure compatibility) is unrealistic.
It’s Been Done Before…
Battery swapping is a concept that has been tried before, and most of those attempts have ended in abject failure. The most famous (or infamous) of these is Better Place, the Israeli company that pioneered battery swapping for the Renault Fluence Z. E. but ended up filing for bankruptcy in 2013, little more than a year after they began offering the service. There were a number of reasons for the fast flop, not the least of which was founder/CEO Shai Agassi’s vision of his company becoming the main supplier of batteries to the auto industry. (As you might imagine, auto manufacturers weren’t quite as enthusiastic about his vision as he was.) Tesla also tried to get into battery swapping, persisting for years before admitting in 2021 that it was a dead end.
In China and Japan, battery swapping seems to have taken hold a little better. Chinese automaker Nio operates a network of over 900 swapping stations. They also pioneered a system of battery leasing, in which the cost of the battery (or rather, temporary use of the battery + swapping service) is separate from the cost of the vehicle. In addition to ____ battery swapping, this system has an added advantage: it reduces the outright cost of purchasing an EV, which has been an obstacle for many would-be buyers. The caveat? You have to buy a Nio EV (although they have expressed openness to cooperating with other manufacturers). This brings us back to one of the biggest issues of all.
Compatibility (aka the Achilles heel of battery-swapping)
A major roadblock in the widespread adoption of battery swapping is compatibility. Car batteries are not one-size fits all, standardised components. They are complex, integrated parts of cars, developed by automakers in their own multi-billion dollar factories using proprietary technology. It would be a massive undertaking for a manufacturer to change this entire infrastructure. And getting them all on board? Good luck!
The alternative — for each auto manufacturer to run their own network of swapping stations using their own batteries — would also be a huge undertaking. An expensive, cumbersome undertaking, complicating an already complicated system. The lack of universal compatibility of chargers and EVs has already been an issue in some places, but good progress has been made in that regard. The overarching view is that manufacturer-specific service stations would be a step in the wrong direction.
But If At First You Don’t Succeed…
San Francisco start-up Ample is undaunted, and aims to address some of the problems that plagued previous companies’ attempts. Initially they worked with automakers on compatibility; now they’ve developed their own modular battery which they claim is “future-proof” and can adapt to any EV. An advantage of the modular design is that instead of changing the whole battery, individual modules can be swapped out (Nio uses a similar method), making the process faster. The company’s goal is to get the average time down to 5 minutes. And the swapping process can be controlled by an app on the driver’s phone — no human attendants required.
Nio, having flourished in China, has opened a station in Norway and has plans to expand across Europe. Stay tuned.
General Consensus: It’s a Viable Option — In Certain Cases
The current consensus seems to be that battery swapping is, and will continue to be, useful for some drivers — primarily those of delivery vans and taxis. They are the main focus of the companies currently seeing success: Nio’s has been in part due to the fact that many of their customers are taxi fleets, and Ample’s initial market has been Uber drivers. (in fact, they have a partnership with Uber).
What delivery companies, taxi and rideshare services have in common: large fleets of vehicles of the same make and model, which makes compatibility a non-issue. They also have a very strong incentive to minimise downtime of their vehicles — the adage “time is money” definitely applies here. It’s a niche market, but luckily for battery-swapping companies, it’s a pretty big niche.
For everyday drivers, charging is likely to remain the norm. But depending on where you go and what you’re driving, you might find swapping is an option too -— at least for the foreseeable future. Something to keep in mind during your next campervan excursion, when you want to make the most of every minute of your vacation time.