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China Is Moving Fast With The Battery Swapping EVs, But Will They Ever Make It Here?

Image Source: Chesky / Shutterstock

Electric vehicles promise efficiency gains over their gas-fuelled predecessors, but the issue of recharging remains a hurdle for many eager to jump on board with the technology. The problem is only magnified for those that regularly street park their vehicles or live in apartments, without provision to charge a vehicle overnight at home.

Battery swapping promises to solve that issue, letting drivers of EVs change out their empty battery for a freshly charged one in a matter of minutes. The technology has been widely panned and failed to gain traction in the US.

However, as it turns out, battery swapping for EVs is actually thing in China, and it’s catching on at a rapid rate.

It’s Already Happening

Nio’s cars reverse in to the stations, and a machine swaps out the battery from underneath. [Getty Images]While pilot programs from companies like Tesla and Better Place faltered quickly almost a decade ago, the industry in China has been picking up steam. In 2019, the only real players were the Chinese companies Nio and BAIC Motor Co, but since then, many others have flooded in for a piece of the action.

The current state of play has Nio at the head of the pack, with the automaker seeing its 700th battery swap station installed in December. 5.3 million battery swaps have been completed using the company’s facilities, indicating that the stations are seeing plenty of use. 258 Nio vehicles are on the road for every battery swap station out there, and reportedly 42% of Nio owners live within a 3 km radius of such a facility. The company hopes to expand to 4000 battery swap stations by 2025, including 1000 outside China.

The Nio system is highly automated, and driving a Nio car up to the battery swap facility will automatically place the vehicle in the queue. Upon arrival at one of the company’s 2.0 swap machines, the car will drive itself into the swap bay, though some manual adjustment is sometimes necessary at the direction of the human attendants. The version 2.0 installations store up to thirteen batteries, versus just five in the earlier 1.0 swap station design. The driver can also stay inside the car, something the 1.0 and other company’s chargers don’t always allow.

In a real-world test, one YouTuber found the swap took 5 minutes and 25 seconds once the car was in the bay, not counting the two minutes spent waiting for another car to leave and getting the vehicle lined up correctly. As demonstrated in a Nio demo video, robotic carriage slides under the car, unbolting the pack, removing it, and slotting in a fresh battery to send the driver on their way.

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There are more pedestrian battery swap stations out there two; automotive outlet Jalopnik recently reported on one small, ramshackle operation that swapped out batteries for just 45 Yuan, or roughly $7 USD, good for a further 95 miles of range or so, and changed over in around three minutes. Taxi drivers are a key customer for the facility, who don’t want to spend time charging when they could be out earning fares.

One factor that has helped to spur the adoption of battery swapping is government policy. The Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has been experimenting with subsidies. Presently, only electric vehicles priced under 300,000 Yuan, or roughly $42,377 USD, get a subsidy from the government. That is, unless they employ battery swapping, in which case there is no limit.

More investment is flooding in as companies like battery manufacturer CATL and automotive giant Geely have started vying for a piece of the action. BAIC Motor and several other associated companies like Aulton have hundreds of swap stations of their own, too, leading the latter to take on a partnership with global petroleum giant BP.

Will It Catch On Everywhere?

The various companies currently doing a roaring trade in China solved the biggest challenges around battery swapping. Thousands, if not millions of vehicles are being built with compatible battery architectures, at least amongst the various major corporate alliances selling vehicles in China. Big investment is making sure that there are batteries and swap stations available where people need them, and business models are being crafted to suit.

The latter is a big part of making battery swapping work. In most parts of the world, a electric vehicle is sold with a battery. That battery is a huge expensive component that is crucial to the range and performance of the vehicle. The idea of swapping out a “good” battery for someone else’s nasty one turns many off from the idea of battery swapping. However, when battery swapping is the primary model, it ceases to matter. A bad battery with lower performance can just be readily swapped for another good one with a minimum of fuss. Batteries that fall outside of proper performance specs can also be removed from circulation by the system operator and can be recycled as needed.

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Nio’s Battery as a Service (BaaS) model is a popular one; consumers can subscribe to a 100 kWh battery plan for roughly $223 USD a month. This allows them to swap in the biggest batteries Nio has available at its swap stations for maximum range, and also allows those purchasing a Nio car to save on the order of $19,000 on the purchase price of the car, as they’re not paying to own the battery itself. As newer, better batteries come along that fit in the same form factor, users can change their subscription to suit and unlock more range for their cars.

Can It Work Outside of China?

However, plenty of roadblocks stand in the way of battery swapping catching on in places like the USA and Europe. In these markets, automakers are competing to build electric cars with the longest possible ranges as a primary competitive advantage. These companies have no desire to create a common specification for battery form factors to allow them to be swapped between different makes and models. Thus far, there’s been little collaboration on charger specs, let alone batteries themselves. Furthermore, to achieve the best in range, performance, weight, and handling of their vehicles, companies have heavily integrated the packs into the design of the vehicles themselves. Easily swapping these batteries is by and large out of the question.

Furthermore, many EVs on the market today boast ranges in excess of 250 miles; some go as far as double that at as we’ve recently reported. Charge times are coming down too, with many vehicles able to add hundreds of miles of range in under 20 minutes when fast charging. This compares relatively favorably with the 5-7 minute times that most battery swap systems seem to take, while adding a similar amount of range, given the smaller packs often used in swap-capable vehicles.

Longer range EVs need charging less often, and thus taking an extra ten minutes to gain some serious range doesn’t really cause a lot of fuss. In the case of cars like the Lucid Air with over 500 miles of range, most people would want to take a nice long break after so much driving, such that waiting a few more minutes for a charge is hardly considered an imposition at all.

With charging infrastructure already rolling out at a rapid pace in Europe and the USA, and few to no vehicles available that are suitable for battery swaps, it seems like the technology may not catch on in these areas. Fast chargers already have a huge lead in the market and will work with a much broader range of vehicles; no overarching battery swap architecture can compete in that regard.

Some startups are working on the problem, like Ample, but the offering isn’t anywhere near as capable as that already up and running in China. At best, the company offers modified Nissan Leaf vehicles with range shorter than contemporaries like the Tesla Model 3, with battery swap times demonstrated last year on the order of 15 minutes, with the company claiming it’s close to getting it down to ten. Ample says it’s working with 5 of the 10 biggest automakers in the world on battery swapping, but won’t name who; meanwhile, there’s been nary a peep from any major players on such collaboration.

Unless non-Chinese automakers are forced by some kind of regulation to implement battery swap technology, it seems unlikely that companies like Tesla, GM and Lucid would tear up ten years of future product plans and give away their competitive advantages to embrace the idea. Similarly, there is little will to give up on fast charger rollouts, which require little more than power supply, to drop in larger-footprint swap stations with their more complicated robotic systems that cost more to buy, install and maintain.

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Regardless, the technology has found a strong foothold in China, and may yet do so in other markets around the world. Regional differences have always added spice and interest to the global automotive scene, and it seems battery swapping will be one such case going forward!

Image Source: Chesky / Shutterstock

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