Could new technology save you hours charging an electric car?

EV battery swapping

While electric cars are becoming more and more advanced, as is their charging infrastructure, could there be a better way? Chinese firm, NIO, is exploring how battery swapping could improve EV charging forever.

To put simply, battery swapping is when an electric vehicle’s depleted battery is removed and replaced with a fully charged one. Footage from NIO’s battery swapping stations show just how easy re-charging an EV could be. 

EV drivers are met with an elegant and easy set up where they simply drive their vehicle into a swapping station. While there, a collection of robotics and hydraulics remove and replace the battery. All of this is done without the driver even getting out of the vehicle.

This is clearly much quicker than waiting for a battery to charge, but how much quicker is it? Well, NIO states that most batteries are swapped within five minutes. This cuts a lot of time off waiting for a vehicle to charge, and actually makes it comparable with re-filling a petrol or diesel vehicle. 

NIO’s battery swapping stations seem to be a hit all across China, and in December 2021 NIO set up their 700th station. The brand is keen to make the technology accessible to everyone and at the moment 43% of EV owners live within just a couple of miles of a station.

At first glance, battery swapping offers huge advantages to EV drivers, by taking charging times out of the picture. So, why aren’t other manufacturers or countries doing it?

History of battery swapping

The first mention of battery swapping was nearly a decade ago – when EV’s had short ranges and a lacking network of charging infrastructure. It was a perfect solution to a number of problems, and a number of brands jumped on it.

Most notably was Better Place, an Israeli company who partnered with Renault to provide a subscription service to drivers. However, this battery swapping service was only available to drivers of the battery-swappable electric Renault Fluence model.

While the project seemed to be fairly popular, it went bust. Ultimately, the costs of getting the infrastructure up and running were higher than predicted. It also cost a lot more than DC fast-charging infrastructure, which was much more sought after by EV drivers.

Big brand Tesla also briefly dabbled in battery swapping. They even set up a swapping station in California. However, Tesla quickly lost interest and decided to commit their time to developing their Supercharger network. A wise decision!

While NIO finds battery swapping efficient in China, USA brand Ample is also having some success. The Californian start-up recently plunged $160 million into battery swapping. At the moment, Ample is keen to focus on targeting swapping stations to those who maybe don’t have as much time to charge an electric vehicle, such as Uber drivers. Ample’s technology also supports battery swapping on the Nissan Leaf and Kia e-Niro

What are the issues of battery swapping?

As Better Place learnt, battery swapping is extremely expensive as they require complex systems of hydraulics and robotics to run. These can cost millions per unit, so installing 700, like NIO has, certainly takes some funding. 

Pair that with the cost of creating a network to transport batteries between stations to make sure there’s a supply of charged batteries, The set-up costs are enormous compared to the cost of installing a network of DC rapid public chargers. 

Another major problem with setting up battery swapping stations is the fact that not all EVs have the same batteries. Of course, EV batteries will differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. In order for battery swapping to branch out, manufacturers will need to come to a universal agreement on battery designs. (Which seems very unlikely).

Finally, battery swapping just isn’t as necessary as it was 10 years ago. Yes, charging infrastructure needs improving, but it has certainly come a long way. No one would turn down the idea of charging an EV in five minutes, but it’s unlikely to be funded as the need isn’t there.

Not only has charging infrastructure improved, but so has how far EVs can travel before needing to be charged. Long gone are the days of driving 100 miles and needing to top up. Now, the latest models have over 200, 300 or even 400 miles of range. That is more than enough to cover the majority of daily journeys.

When you do need to recharge, you’ll likely only need to once or twice on a long journey. In which case, you’ll probably need to stop for a lunch, walk or toilet break!

Could battery swapping come to the UK?

The short answer is probably no. But, the long answer is a bit more nuanced. NIO announced in 2021 their partnership with energy giant Shell to install battery swapping stations across Europe. The plan is to continue with NIO’s development in China, and then pilot some swapping stations across Europe. However, this won’t be likely to take place until at least 2025.

Shell will also make its European charging network available to NIO customers, while NIO installs their stations at current Shell locations. Likewise, Shell plans to install Shell Recharge rapid charging points at NIO’s locations.

* All information correct as of 26/02/2022.

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