Are swappable EV batteries really a dead end?

Posted
15 August 2019

Removing the battery from an electric vehicle and replacing it in a matter of minutes? Crazy. Swappable batteries have long been ridiculed by EV automakers, but they might have found a home in the wider world of e-mobility. Today on the JET Charge blog we’re asking what this tech really is, what it promises, and where it fits in an electric future.

Charging your electric vehicle isn’t a hard thing to do. For the average driver, an EV is just a smartphone on wheels: plug it in every night and you’re golden. But that hasn’t stopped people trying to cut down those wait times, and fast replaceable battery tech claims it can cut charging from the equation entirely.

Replaceable batteries haven’t ever really taken off in the electric vehicle market. It never seemed practical to swap 50-to-100 kWh batteries the way we do with children’s toys or TV remotes, and most projects trialling the idea have been significantly downsized or cancelled.

Why swap?

One of the few large-scale battery swapping projects comes courtesy of Chinese automaker NIO. They’ve built dozens of ‘Power Swap’ stations in EV hotspots throughout China, each about the size of 3 parking spaces. Owners of NIO’s ES8 can roll in to one of these locations and have their battery replaced in minutes by a fully automated system. Watch it happen below.

It goes without saying that this is significantly faster than the alternative; the battery on the ES8 can take upwards of an hour to charge even on DC fast chargers. NIO also gets around the problem of battery ownership by leasing packs to most of their customers. This model, alongside their swapping infrastructure, is what allowed ES8 owners to easily upgrade from a 70 to an 84 kWh battery pack when they became available in 2018.

The battery leasing option has been a success for NIO so far, allowing customers to shave ~$21,000 (AUD equivalent) from the upfront cost of their vehicle for a ~$250 monthly fee. With high purchase costs being one of the major obstacles to EV adoption worldwide, it’s hard to argue with the idea — especially when the leased battery is easily removable from the owned vehicle.

The problem(s)

But it just isn’t that easy for the world’s EV automakers. Making batteries swappable across an entire model range is a daunting and expensive task. Tesla flirted with battery swapping in the early 2010s, only to abandon the project in favour of supercharging.

Very few companies have made a serious attempt at swappable batteries. Israeli startup Better Place went gloriously bankrupt in 2013 after pitching the tech, and no major automakers have publicised any projects with it since.

A BETTER PLACE BATTERY SWAP STATION — PIC BY ELI SHANY שנילי

Better Place losing $500 million of investors’ money is a scary example of the high cost of battery swapping. To make it work, manufacturers need a revolving stock of batteries to cycle into cars at every swapping location, with expensive staff or robots on-hand to conduct the replacements when customers roll in.

Not only would the project require extremely high adoption to become profitable, but it binds the manufacturer running it to a single battery design for their entire range. If a superior alternative becomes available down the track, that infrastructure can quickly become redundant.

And it’s not just the automakers that have to foot the bill. Those monthly battery lease payments NIO offers? They can be enough to offset the on-road savings of running an EV rather than a combustion vehicle. Plus the huge costs associated with a battery swapping network eat directly into manufacturers’ profits, so sooner or later they’ll need to up their prices to compensate. Especially when those high-turnover lease batteries start wearing out.

Even NIO, the posterchild for swappable EV batteries, has been feeling the hurt. Their stock tumbled after a painful recall in June, and their battery manufacturing is struggling to keep up with demand — exactly what the battery-swap naysayers predicted would be their downfall.

  
        

So is battery swapping doomed to fail? Perhaps not. Thanks to some innovative engineering in other sectors of the e-mobility space, it’s looking like this tech might have a future after all — One that can capitalise on all the strengths of battery swapping while avoiding many of the pitfalls that’ve made it unviable for EVs.

Scale it down

The biggest problems with swappable EV batteries are size and cost. They’re too big to quickly remove without robotic help, and they’re too expensive for owners to justify buying spares of their own. With these two issues out of the way, the idea starts looking much more attractive.

Which is exactly why it’s so promising for electric motorbikes, bicycles, and scooters. Let’s not forget that e-mobility goes a long way past passenger vehicles.

Dirt bike manufacturer KTM has been using them for years. Their FREERIDE E range use hot swappable batteries to let owners ride for hours at a time without stopping to charge. The batteries are small enough to lift out and replace by hand and can be easily charged from a standard power outlet.

KTM FREERIDE E-XC RIDERS CAN LIFT THE SEAT AND SWAP THE BATTERY IN SECONDS

The e-bikes’ reduced weight and costs make them an attractive purchase, plus the natural advantages of electric mobility — instant torque, lack of moving parts, and quiet motor — are ideally suited to the needs of dirt bike riders.

Many of those advantages also apply to other small e-transport options. Electric bicycle owners don’t need to fear their battery being stolen if they can take it inside to charge, and e-scooters are made much more practical when batteries can be substituted when necessary. 

Scooter startup Gogoro have pioneered this practise by establishing huge public banks of batteries in Taiwan. They’ve recently partnered with Yamaha to expand their business, and it’s only a matter of time until delivery scooters worldwide start switching to the increasingly affordable and convenient technology. 

Taking charge

It’s hard to dispute that swappable batteries have a future in e-mobility. The success of a technology relies on dependable use-cases, and removable batteries have likely found it in the smaller end of the e-mobility market. Whether full-sized EVs can benefit from them is still to be seen, but I’d wager that NIO’s best efforts won’t be enough to beat the global investment in fast charging. 

For more EV news please check out the JET Charge blog. You can follow our Facebook page for updates or contact us at info@jetcharge.com.au with EV charging inquiries Australia-wide.