Have you ever washed your clothes and waited for them to dry rather than putting on another pair? Well, what kind of a question is this, right? Well, in that case, have you ever thought of swapping batteries of an Electric Vehicle rather than recharging it?
A few start-ups like the ‘Better Place’ certainly did. And they did give it a go in the past but failed miserably. The rise of ‘Better Place’, the dream child of Shai Agassi, considered as one of the few daring and innovative entrepreneurs, as a start-up was phenomenal and its fall, more so that along with its own downfall, the concept that it offered itself became a red sign.
But if you are a frequent visitor at nexLOOP., you would quite possibly know by now that we are not interested in talking about stuff that failed in the past. We prefer to talk about stuff that could succeed in the future or at least analyze and state otherwise.
Today, the brief revisit of the past failure was to set the stage for something similar, this time produced and presented by a company called Ample.
Ample has been in and around battery tech from 2014 onwards but decided to come out of the shades only fairly recently. It has already raised around 31 million dollars and has signed up ties with Japanese petroleum and energy company ‘Eneos’ and New-York-based taxi and ride-hailing service Sally.
Ample: Battery Swapping Technology
Now, we will take a brief look at what Ample has to offer when it comes to the swapping tech.
Ample offers to set up battery swapping stations similar to gas stations, wherein within a time frame of 10 minutes, the depleted battery module, which is modified to be detached, is exchanged with a charged and ready to roll module, all using fully automated machinery.
But if you are the kind of person who is really paranoid about ‘Skynet’s, well ample promises that every station will be deployed with at least one person to manage the whole system. The overall experience would be similar to a gas station, but with additional steps, a hydraulic lift, and a few more minutes.
The cost, as of now, is promised to be 10-20% less than gasoline yet, precise numbers are not available, at least for the moment. On top of swapping and recharging batteries, ample also has potential plans on using the shelved batteries as transient grid support systems.
Ample Vs Better Place: Battery Swapping Technology?
But as we already mentioned, what ample tries to pull off is not unprecedented and hence it is easier for us to try and compare them with its failed forerunner ‘Better Place’, to analyze the differences, if at all present. After all, it’s just like how the quotation goes- “Wise people learn from other’s mistakes and not from their own”.
Let’s start with geographic constraints. Better place’s home turf was Israel and Ample focuses on the US and Japan. Past the failure of ‘Better Place’, prominent media including ‘The Guardian’ reported that various activities of the company regarding the infrastructure were slowed down by the bottom tier of bureaucracy.
In addition to the same, the overall concept of the new EV tech was not welcomed by the Israel population as expected with better place managing to sell only a few numbers of units. The US well as Japan, on the other hand, are well-known markets for EV’s with tax waivers and implementation of various schemes for popularising and supplementing Electric Vehicle technology.
When it comes to the absolute tech side of matters, both ‘Ample’ and ‘Better place’ are making use of similar tech, from a customer’s point of view. The back-end tech might be different, but the experience is almost the same.
Both would be somewhat like a drive-through washing station but ample takes 10 mins whereas better place’s tech took mere 5 mins. But just like the choice of market, the implementation of infrastructure building seems to be way different when it comes to ‘Ample’. ‘Better place’ built their swapping stations as standalone infrastructure with each of them costing around 3 million dollars after failing to strike up deals with existing gas stations.
At the same time, ample have already shaken hands with oil companies ‘Shell’ and ‘Repsol’, of which Shell has about 25,000 gas stations across the US and is indeed the market leader. Besides tie-ups that seem to be working in favor of Ample, their swapping stations take up merely two parking spaces.
Contrasting colors are visible not only in terms of their infrastructure. In fact, the key difference between ‘Ample’ and ‘Better Place’ is in the targeted customers.
Better place targeted citizens and private vehicle owners who used electric vehicles for their daily commute. At the very same time, ample targets fleets like ride-hailing and taxi services.
Now, if you are wondering what the key difference between these two niches is, there is indeed a clear answer.
Let’s just take the Tesla Model S as an example. It can travel a distance of about 650 kilometers in a single charge and can fast charge for 15 mins and cover almost half of the 650 km range.
For reference, from Delhi to Bikaner in Rajasthan, you’ll have to traverse a distance of 550 km by road and if you are traveling in a Tesla Model S, you can traverse the distance and still have 100 km worth of charge left.
One of the EV’s with comparatively less range is Nissan Leaf plus which can travel up to 360 km in a single charge. Now, when was the last time you went on a ride when you had to travel 650 km on a single stretch in your car, that too with no sources to charge?
Now, you can see that for an average commuter or fairly long-distance hauls, you don’t have the requirement to swap a battery, or even if you run out of charge, you can fast charge, given there is a fast-charging facility. Most of the countries that are advanced in terms of E-mobility have setups to charge vehicles at offices and public places when the car is left idle, which means that for normal passengers, battery swapping is not at all a necessity.
Now Israel was a country that lacked all of these facilities so battery swapping should have taken off, but they lacked interest in EV’s too. But, when it comes down to fleets like taxis and ride-hailing, two important things change, time and distance. Both of the aforesaid services are heavily cautious of time, especially in the connected world we have today. If you have ever worked in either of these, you would already know that even 5 minutes makes a heavy difference.
What would have ended in angry growling and reduced fare in the old world would manifest today as ratings and reviews which might have more effects in terms of being a backlash. Hence even the difference of 5-20 minutes between swapping and fast charging would make a huge difference.
The second major difference between private vehicles and these services occurs in terms of the distance that they traverse. Both better place and ample offers about a 20% reduction in cost for swapping services as compared to fuel prices. This means that if you are an average traveler who uses about 10 liters of gasoline at 100 rs/liter (trust me, making comparisons and drawing conclusions is the only time I feel contented with fuel prices in India being around the perfect number ‘100’), with swapping technology you save about 200 rs, while if you are a commercial driver who consumes about 100 liters you end up saving 2000 rs per day.
Hence, by considering the variables at play, we can conclude that battery swapping is a technology that can be considered more suited for commercial purposes. The aforesaid conclusion is inclined in favor of Ample’s choice to target commercial fleets over private vehicles. There are indeed two more key takeaways.
One, basically every nation is trying to impose strict norms for converting a huge proportion of ride-hailing and online taxi services to the electric modes of transit, realizing the huge distances they cover per day. Second, these are times when EV companies are pushing forwards with the idea of popularising their commercial fleet, for purposes other than passenger commute. Both of the aforesaid factors could potentially work in favor of Ample.
Well, it seems so far so good for ‘Ample’, doesn’t it? That’s because we are yet to discuss the challenges that ample might have to face shortly. And it comes as no surprise that Ample’s challenges are more or less similar to those faced by ‘Better Place’ as well.
The better place got a lot of things wrong, but where it failed utterly was getting various EV manufacturers on board, thereby failing to offer enough choices to their customers. ‘Better Place’ was stuck with a single model to offer, while ample has announced that it has 9 choices for customers to choose from, albeit not being completely transparent about which 9. But still, we can’t conclude that ample has managed to avoid the disaster that ‘Better place’ couldn’t evade.
The reason why you can go to any gas station and fill up your vehicle is that your fuel tanks, vehicles, and everything associated with it is standardized to run off of these fuels and fuel stations. The same doesn’t apply to Ample’s battery swapping.
The only way anyone can swap at ample’s station is by having a car that is modified to be able to run on ample’s battery module and mechanism. Well, their current target of consumers can or might do this, but in the long run, if ‘Ample’ plans to become the gas stations of the future, things look rather gloomy.
Challenges for Electric Vehicle Manufacturing to Develop Better Batteries
What are the odds that all the EV manufacturers competing to develop better batteries and thereby monopolizing the market will join hands to standardize their battery modules to make swapping possible?
Well, none. After all, Tesla is already pushing for its DC fast charging technology and seems like it has no interest whatsoever in battery swapping.
In fact, battery swapping is a technology that ‘Tesla’ themselves might want to forget about, since well… It has its own tale to tell concerning the failure of the same.
This very problem, the practical difficulty of making all the Electric Vehicle EV manufacturers join beneath the umbrella of standardized unified battery technology is far from practical. Especially when battery modules remain as the keystone and technology, which once tamed will potentially help the company that does so to probably monopolize and dominate the market.
Another concern that should haunt ample is managing the storage of EV batteries. Li-ion batteries are not the best things to surround yourself with, especially without flawless facilities and managing practices. If you doubt the importance of battery management, well just consider the amount of effort every EV manufacturer puts into keeping the ideal temperature and other conditions for their battery modules.
Still, battery swapping is a technology that seems too good to fail. In fact, it is somewhat of a success in China. It’s arguably practical, it’s similar to what we are used to, and on top of all that, this helps to solve the ownership and maintenance dispute of batteries. There is a long-aged discussion on whether battery replacement and recycling should be the responsibility of EV manufacturers or battery manufacturers.
If you are interested in knowing more about that and the pollution caused by Li-ion batteries used by EV’s, visit our article on the same, here. Having a 3rd party in between, solely dedicated to the management of the battery module alone, makes everything concerned with batteries centralized and easily manageable.
Also, with the swapping technology in place, you don’t have to buy the battery module along with the EV itself, which kind of makes the EV way cheaper. If you are frowning and asking, ‘how much?’, well depending upon the manufacturer, anywhere between 20% and 40% of the total cost. So, it’s safe to say that battery swapping technology, albeit not flawless, is still something worth another try maybe.
At the end of the day, we have no conclusion regarding the potential success of ‘Ample’ and thereby the battery swapping technology. From where we stand, things could go either way.
Although the technology used by ‘Ample’ is similar to those used by ‘Better Place’, their targeted audience and mode of application seem to be way different. They have managed to strike up deals and pull off things that ‘Better Place’ completely failed to do. After the failure of ‘Better Place’, reports by various outlets accused them of mismanagement and lack of planning in various realms.
After all, to quote Evan Thornley, the successor of Shai Agassi as CEO, better place, “I continue to believe that the Better Place vision is both accurate and commercially sound, and trust that whatever shortfalls we suffer are correctly seen as errors of execution and not of strategy.”
You can still take a walk around the search engine, and you can see that with better place’s downfall, everyone has very much written off battery swapping technology as a whole. After all due to challenges mentioned a while ago, combined with the rapid growth of technologies like DC fast charging and those that render batteries more efficient, the future doesn’t look all that promising for battery swapping.
But all these technologies, unless an exponential improvement takes place, would still fall short in the commercial wave of EVs. Normal charging and battery capacities have an upper ceiling and DC fast charging has its on-banes, which is a tale for another day.
So, battery swapping does have a glimmer of a chance for having a potential success story too, in the offing, especially in the commercial space. After all, diversity has always been a good thing. Diversity is in fact, according to the Darwinian principle, the basis of survival itself. In the end, battery tech and charging don’t essentially have to be a monopoly or a universally standardized entity, despite that being our notion for IC vehicles. But change is the only constant thing, ironically, and it is what we all should be embracing.
Whether it be in adopting an EV environment or in adapting to non-standardized/ mixed refueling systems. Since such entanglement with change is nothing new non-standardized, not willing to jump in on the ‘battery swapping will fail’ bandwagon. Instead, the article concludes that ample does seem to have some possibility of success, although not ensured. And make no mistake, this was the case with many companies before they eventually took the fortune ’X’ branding.
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Credits – This Article and Illustrations are presented by the nexLoop team.
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