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Battery swapping was a non-starter in Western markets, but could the Chinese example reignite the technology overseas?

Tags: #batteries #ev-battery-swapping

Back in the annals of EV history, battery swapping was put forward as a way of overcoming the issue around charging time. Tesla tested it over in the USA in 2013, demonstrating its ability to swap out a Model S battery in 90 seconds, but has since abandoned it. However, in China the idea is very much alive and kicking – and government backed – so is there a future for it elsewhere?

The idea was great in principle; create common standards for EV battery sizes and connectors and rather than recharging when required, owners would simply swap out their spent battery for a charged one. It even got off the ground for a while, with California-based (but Israeli-run) company, Better Place, launching a battery swapping service at the genesis of more mainstream EV uptake.

The service used the same equipment that loaded bombs onto F16 fighter jets to swap batteries on compatible EVs – predominantly the Renault Fluence Z.E. It operated on a smaller-than-desired scale in Israel, Japan, California and the Netherlands, but after blowing $850 million of private capital and limping on for a few years, Better Place was liquidated in 2013.

Better Place misread the market. The model wouldn't work for business fleets – its main target – because car companies without a compatible EV (i.e. most) would lose out, as would leasing companies. Potential car manufacturer partners didn't want to buy-in, and the project ended as it had begun – with Renault the sole contributor of cars. Furthermore, Israel isn't a bastion of environmentalism so the company couldn't rely on selling an ideology. Finally, the cost didn't undercut petrol enough to be worth the bother, shaving around 20 per cent off the equivalent petrol price.

That seemed like that when it came to large-scale battery swapping – except in China.

Bloomberg reports that there is renewed vigour to create common standards for swapping services to help rejuvenate the stuttering EV market, which has taken a hit since the government reduced the incentives available to EV buyers. More to the point, while the Chinese government taketh away the incentives with one hand, it potentially giveth back in pushing for common standards that would support battery swapping.

Not only would moving over to a battery swapping service save the Chinese people time that would otherwise be spent charging, it also saves them money in up-front purchase costs. Instead, they would pay a subscription or lease fee to gain access to battery services. Another factor to bear in mind is that in the urban environments where EVs are most popular in China, the population and building density is such that charging infrastructure isn't the easiest thing to place. However, if stacks of batteries can be charged in a warehouse, that's a hell of a lot of vehicles that aren't being plugged in at public charge stations. In short, it's more spatially efficient.

So far, EV makers BAIC BluePark New Energy Technology Co. (catchy name) and NIO have started testing swapping swapping services, with each able to undertake a change in less than three minutes.

BAIC, who makes low-cost EVs which are predominantly used as taxis, has set up 187 battery swapping stations in 15 cities to service around 16,000 electric-powered taxis. It'll also sell private customers its cars, such as sub-brand BJEV's EV300, with an unlimited battery swapping subscription costing $60 (£47) per month. NIO has around 125 swap stations and will rent out large battery packs for around $10 (£7.75) a day.

China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology told Bloomberg that it “...will actively promote the demonstration application of battery-swap mode and improve the system and standardization”. Translated into plain English, that basically means they're going to carry on working on it with a view to rolling it out more widely.

Battery swapping in the western world?

Given China's pursuit of battery swapping technology, and the increasing number of Chinese EV brands looking to sell their cars in the west, is there a future for it in the UK, US and Europe? After all, it does seem like a brilliantly simple solution to issues around charging times and charging infrastructure availability.

The short answer is probably not. But the longer answer is a bit more nuanced.

First and foremost, despite the ever-increasing homogenisation of EVs, manufacturers are still precious about their components. They use the uniqueness of their designs and powertrain packaging as a selling point and are continuously trying to out-do one-another in terms of technical specifications. As such, they're unlikely to want to work too closely with direct rivals to standardise in too many ways. Furthermore they are also unlikely to want to invest in their own swapping infrastructure.

Then there's the issue around battery leasing. Renault's battery leasing system is considered a bit of a curio in the EV world. Of course, it lowers the initial outlay for the car, but then ties customers into monthly payments. People typically like buying a whole car – having been used to the petrol tank not being a monthly extra for so long – so there'd likely be resistance among many to battery leasing.

Charging habits over here are also more home-based. Already, EV owners have built habits and behaviours into their daily lives; they habitually get home and plug in, take advantage of cheap electricity overnight and are ready to go out again the next day. In China, this home charging is less of a theme.

Then there's the big fundamental in all of this: in China, if the government wants it to happen, it will make it happen and the population will tend to go along with it. Of course, this is a potentially crass generalisation, but in the west big companies – like car manufacturers – hold huge sway and aren't likely to be pushed in a direction they don't want to go. Western car makers will generally dictate where technology goes and government schemes to support it follow, rather than it being the other way around.

Despite how unlikely it is that battery swapping with catch on in the west, the fact that China is pursuing it is an interesting prospect and we will watch with interest to see where it goes.

Update: NIO swaps over half-a-million batteries

NIO now has a network of 136 automated swap stations along China's busiest highways and around 58 cities, run by subsidiary NIO Power. In around 90 seconds, users can have their spent battery changed for a fully-charged one, enabling them to continue on their way faster than filling up with petrol. As part of the brand's “chargeable, swappable, upgradeable” user experience, NIO drivers not only get a fresh battery; they also get a complimentary inspection of their car's powertrain.

What was once a great experiment seems to have been accepted by users and NIO Power has confirmed that it has now swapped over 500,000 batteries. Of course, like many other EV brands – especially Chinese start-ups – NIO has taken a knock from the COVID-19 shut-down, but in a recent press release it stated that it would be delivering between 9500 and 10,000 for the second quarter of 2020, which is a significant uplift compared to Q1 this year and Q2 last year.

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