Battery swapping has become a lot like hydrogen fuel cells for passenger cars: They’re automotive ideas that are never quite born, but just won’t die.
Here in 2021, Battery swapping in EVs has become an especially bad idea. It’s a technical and market dead-end that seems more about separating green investors from their money than providing a solution. That’s despite credulous media reports that coo over the (admittedly cool) spectacle of robots switching car batteries like greasy Rube Goldbergs—but tend to avoid asking tough questions about how it’s supposed to work in the real world.
The technology’s troubled history traces to Better Place, or Exhibit A in the case against battery-swapping’s future. The Israel-based Better Place—founded in 2007 by smooth-talking Silicon Valley entrepreneur Shai Agassi—promised to change the world with robotic service stations that would pluck a battery from a car and pop in a fresh one, extending its driving range in a matter of minutes. In those quaint EV days, with Tesla taking baby steps with the Roadster (built from 2008 to 2011), battery swapping seemed to hold hazy promise. Most newfangled EVs (Tesla excepted) could barely get beyond city limits on a charge, including the 2011 Nissan Leaf and its 73-mile range. Once range was depleted, reliable public charging barely existed, as I recall from my own anxious drives in San Francisco when I tested the original Leaf and BMW i3. When you did find a working plug, batteries took forever to charge.
Better Place’s alternative, through a contract with Renault, was the 2011 Fluence Z.E.: An electric sedan whose upright battery ate into trunk space and provided a piddling 80-mile range. But that battery could drop through the Renault’s floor for swaps at Better Place stations in Israel and Denmark, adding another 80 miles in about 10 minutes, rather than hours of recharging.
But despite raising nearly $900 million from investors, and the media anointing Agassi as an electric savior, Better Place imploded like the Theranos of its day. Robotic swap stations were supposed to cost $500,000 each, but ended up costing $2 million. Critically, Better Place failed to get any other automaker onboard to design and produce standardized vehicles with swappable batteries, with Agassi alienating such potential partners as BMW and GM. Better Place sold fewer than 1,500 electric Renaults before it was liquidated, with Agassi fired in disgrace in 2012. Fast Company magazine called Better Place “the most spectacularly failed technology start-up of the 21st century.”
That debacle didn’t drive the final, automated nail into battery swapping’s coffin. The latest proponents are China’s EV maker Nio, and Ample, a San Francisco-based startup. China’s Nio has taken on the challenge of designing compatible cars, and a few hundred robotic stations that swap out batteries in three to five minutes. Cars roll into a covered bay for a hydraulic lift. Laser-guided wrenches unscrew bolts and lower the battery case from the car. That battery is whisked away on a motorized track, and a fresh one is installed. Despite the whiz-bang tech, Nio’s stations still require a human operator to safely drive the car onto the lift and monitor the process. It’s akin to every public charger coming with its own pump attendant.
Last fall, Nio launched a “Battery as a Service” subscription: Think of it as buying a car with “Batteries Not Included.” Since batteries remain the most expensive EV component, the plan saves owners roughly $10,000 on the car’s price. In return, owners pay about $142 a month to lease a 70 kWh pack with six monthly swaps. In April, Nio claimed it had performed 2 million total exchanges at its Power Swap stations, with users gaining an average of 123 miles of range per swap.
That’s a solid range boost in five minutes. But time, in multiple senses, is still conspiring against battery swapping. Jeremy Michalek, a mechanical engineering professor and director of Carnegie Mellon’s vehicle electrification group, calls battery swapping a relic of a bygone EV age.
Today’s new EVs routinely deliver 200 to 400 miles of range, with a potential 517 miles for the forthcoming Lucid Air. Those EVs charge in 35 minutes or less at Tesla Superchargers and other oases for time-pressed drivers. DC fast charging times have soared by roughly sevenfold, to today’s top 350-kilowatt units. Why do drivers need a contraption to extract the 630-kilogram battery of a Porsche Taycan Turbo, when they can juice that battery in 20 minutes flat? Lucid says its Air will add up to 300 miles of range in the same 20 minutes. That’s enough for nearly five hours of highway driving at 60 mph, before it’s time for a fill-up.
“When you’re looking at 300 miles of range from a fast charge, it changes the game for how convenient EVs are,” Michalek said. “You’re going to spend 20 minutes going to the bathroom and getting coffee anyway.”
In addition, the world has spoken, loudly. Governments around the world are choosing DC charging as the tech winner, including President Joe Biden’s plan to invest $15 billion to install at least 500,000 public chargers. Tesla demonstrated battery-swapping in 2013 on its Model S before abandoning the tech—with reasons including cumbersome stations and tepid consumer interest—in favor of its Supercharger network that now appears a smarter bet.
Since batteries are so expensive, bulky and resource-intensive, Michalek says, creating vast networks of swappable packs—which must be stored, kept charged and maintained—would be a waste of money and resources, while expanding carbon footprints. Many surplus batteries would end up sitting around, waiting for customers. Ultimately, customers would absorb these exorbitant costs. Seeing the conundrum, swap proponents have begun touting the possibility of stored batteries returning power to the grid.
Building and servicing a swapping infrastructure seems another nightmare. Connecting EVs to the existing grid, via a simple plug, is surely smarter than a shell game of batteries and robotic helpers. In the swapping model, polluting trucks would have to haul batteries between stations according to demand. It’s bike rentals writ large, only for 1,500-pound battery packs that cost $10,000 and more. The stations’ complex machinery, especially intermingled with dirty cars and packs, would require far more maintenance than a charger with virtually no moving parts.
If those obstacles seem daunting, we haven’t touched on the worst: Automakers don’t standardize vehicles or batteries, and aren’t looking to start. These are companies that can’t even agree on a charging standard, let alone batteries that could plug-and-play with every car, SUV and pickup. Barring standardization, Michalek says, each automaker would have to develop its own proprietary, balkanized station network, from San Francisco to Shanghai.
Battery-swap proponents want you to see cars as cordless drills, but they’re nothing like that. The design of each automaker’s batteries is deeply entwined with unique vehicle architectures that support vast lineups of car models. Even within a single automaker, batteries are bringing varying module counts and orientations to maximize energy storage, as with GM’s new Ultium packs. Modern packs are designed as integrated, weight-bearing structural elements to pass rigorous crash testing. None are designed for one-size-fits-all or easy removal and reinstallation.
Ultimately, competition and capitalism itself spells doom for battery swaps. Commonized vehicles and battery packs would require every major automaker to tear up existing and future product plans and start from scratch.
And to what gain? Certainly, automakers partner on a limited basis to share technology, such as GM and Honda jointly developing two Honda/Acura models with Ultium batteries. But imagine a Tesla or General Motors agreeing to essentially give away their most-precious intellectual property in today’s industry: The designs, electronic controls and chemistries of batteries, along with the EVs they power. These core competencies include giga-scaled factories for proprietary lithium-ion cells, worth billions in investment. Imagine Elon Musk, and the automotive giants racing to catch up with him, calling a competitive truce, and working hand-in-hand to standardize every battery, brand and model. They’d be doing this not to make a better, safer EV for customers, or in their own self-interest. Instead, they’d be commonizing components so that Agassi-style disruptors—start-ups in the nonexistent “business” of battery swapping—can literally leverage their way into their cars and multi-trillion-dollar industry; with robotic stations to jack up cars, switch out batteries, and take a cut of any profits. Any automaker invested in current EVs and the charging model would be cutting their own throat, and handing potential competitors the knife.
One glance at product plans of global automakers underlines the truth: Aside from Nio—now 25-percent owned by China’s local Hefei government, following a forced $1 billion bailout last year—no automaker seems remotely interested in joining this quixotic scheme.
Ample, the Silicon Valley start-up, seems to anticipate that showroom reality. It has opened five battery-swap stations in the San Francisco area, aimed at beta-testing Nissan Leafs modified to accept Ample’s own modular battery pack. The idea is that battery swapping might serve ride-hailing, delivery or municipal fleets, where even modest downtime for drivers cuts into earnings. Trading a half-hour plug-in charge for a faster battery swap might boost fleet revenue, and avoid overreliance on DC charging that can degrade battery life. Ample’s technical twist is robotics that can remove only the spent modules in a battery, rather than an entire pack.
Yet even the idea of battery-flipping fleets engenders skepticism: Where are the companies raising hands to design these vehicles? Manufacturers large and small—GM, Daimler, Volvo, Tesla, Rivian, Volta, Workhorse—are indeed developing electric ride-share and delivery vehicles, even massive semis. None are publicly discussing battery swaps as part of that toolkit. In an interview with Car and Driver, Ample CEO Khaled Hassounah said the company is working with “five of the 10 largest (automakers) in the world,” but declined to name one.
Experts warn that time is already running short to accelerate the transition to electric transportation, if climate change is to be stopped in its tracks. Fast-tracking a reliable charging infrastructure has become the consensus solution. Even that will require a Marshall Plan-level of political will, private investment and government support. In the face of this dire situation, battery swapping is a distraction and dead-end that the planet can’t afford.
Correction (May 14, 8:40 p.m. EDT): This story was corrected to reflect the fact that other Chinese companies than Nio have introduced EV battery-swap projects.