This is a part of the EV Innovation Intelligence series
Some years back, when most of us thought electric vehicles were far into the future, a bright entrepreneur set up an ambitious idea in Israel called Better Place, which he felt could actually do away at least one key problem with electric vehicles – their long charging times.
Shai Agassi pioneered the concept of battery swapping. He was possibly a bit ahead of his time and Better Place unfortunately did not succeed. But his ideas and efforts have inspired many companies worldwide venture into battery swapping.
The idea, as many of you already know, is quite simple: why bother to wait for hours to charge a battery when you can give your depleted battery and take a fully charged one? Battery swapping essentially rescheduled battery charging such that the user did not have to wait at all.
So, why has not battery swapping completely taken over battery charging? And if not today, is it likely to dominate over charging in the near future?
Well, one of the reasons battery swapping has not completely dominated charging is that it looks easy in concept, but not so easy when it comes to implementation.
The first part has to do with safety. EV batteries are heavy – even a bicycle battery can be as heavy as a Kg, as scooter battery as much as 10 Kg and a car battery (or batteries) as much as 100 Kg, not to speak of batteries for vans and trucks. It is thus easy to see that swapping is not just a matter of putting our hands in and out. In some case such as car battery swapping, you may need people with experience to remove depleted batteries and place new ones in their place. Even robots are being used for these operations.
This is a critical aspect. If batteries are a core asset in an electric vehicle, vehicle owners might feel as much a sense of ownership for their batteries as they do for the vehicle themselves – if not in an emotional sense, at least purely from a quality and performance context. But in swapping, you are essentially giving up your battery and getting someone else’s battery. How safe is that battery? How efficient is it? These are questions that are likely to come up in a vehicle owner’s mind
Battery swapping will be successful only if there are many swapping points in every locality, just as there are many gas stations. Now, if there are dozens of OEMs sporting their own proprietary batteries, can each afford to have many, many swapping stations? Quite difficult. The only solution would be where I can swap any OEM’s battery at any swapping station (not unlike ATMs where I can draw cash from any bank’s ATM). But such interoperability does not exist now, and there are challenges before such seamless interoperability will exist.
Then there’s the question of legal responsibility in case of accidents involving batteries. Who is responsible? Is the vehicle owner responsible? Even if it is well established that the fault was with the battery or in its use in the vehicle, is the swapping services provider responsible? Is the OEM responsible? Or the battery maker responsible?
Battery charging time
In early 2021, we are talking about an hour’s charging time at fast charging stations, and if you are lucky, perhaps 30 mins charging for 80% of capacity. That still looks fairly long if I am on my way to somewhere. But there are also experimentations with ultra-fast charging (10-15 minutes) and flash charging (3-5 minutes). At 3-5 minutes, I’m pretty much par with gas/petrol stations. But these flash charging cases are not yet mainstream. Even if they become commercial in a couple of years, not every battery can be charged this way – unless you want your battery to flunk with 6 months. And having these fast charging stations could require significant electrical and safety infrastructure in place, something even developed countries will need quite a bit of time to design, test and implement. Developing countries may have to wait quite a bit longer.
Battery performance degrades over time and as a result the range attainable with each charge. In a battery swap scenario, considering that all cars will be using the same battery pack format and power, we will find batteries with different energy storage capacities in the swapping station, mainly due to degradation. Logically, most people will opt for newer battery packs when swapping, as they give greater range and reduce the number of trips required to the swapping station. Lower capacity packs mean that range with EVs will not be the same as with new packs, so users will not be happy when their new battery pack is swapped with a lower performance pack, as they will get less mileage from their vehicle. This will result in batteries having shorter operating cycles, as in order to keep customers happy, battery packs with reduced performance would be replaced faster.
Battery swapping could make better use of solar power
How? Simply because I can charge swapped batteries anywhere I wish, and not necessarily at the charging stations. By removing the constraint of charging location, I can charge the batteries directly from solar panels at a large ground mounted solar power plant. One can have solar panels on charging stations too, but it is likely that these can supply only a limited portion of the total power required for charging the batteries at the station. (Of course, charging stations can purchase solar power from third parties, though this would not count as using electrons generated from solar).
Entry of big boys into battery swapping
As of 2021, no large company worldwide seems to have taken a strong stand towards battery swapping, though some companies have made investments in startups providing swapping solutions. Should some of the big boys (OEMs, battery makers, component makers) directly enter the scene with large investments, swapping could gain an upper hand
Swapping better aligned to leasing or rental models
In many regions worldwide electric vehicle leasing and rental models are picking up pace. Battery swapping could be better aligned to these models (as the user does not own the vehicle or battery anyway) and hence could be preferred by these service providers.
It could be vehicle dependent
There is this example in north India where electric rickshaws already operate on a battery swapping model. For these low-end vehicles with small batteries (some of them in fact lead acid batteries), swapping is a highly feasible avenue and as the vehicle owner does not need to buy the battery, it makes sense economically as well. For these types of segments, battery swapping could see fast adoptions.
Similarly, and interestingly, battery swapping could also find favour at the other end of the vehicle spectrum – truck fleets. When trucks get electrified, large fleet owners with multiple electric trucks could use swapping as a simple way to overcome charging times. As these companies own facilities all along the truck routes, trucks can simply stop at one of their facilities, get their depleted batteries swapped and move along.
So, what would it be: Charging or swapping?
Considering all aspects, it would be safe to infer that at least for the 2020-2030 period, both battery charging and battery swapping would co-exist around the world. What happens beyond 2030 is difficult to predict, and even the question might be irrelevant should fuel cells overtake batteries as the energy storage medium of choice!
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This is a part of the EV Innovation Intelligence series
Posts in the series
Tesla’s Valuation | EV’s in different countries | Purpose built EVs | Mainstream Fuel Cells | IT in Emobility | EVs versus ICEs | Advent of China in Emobility | Charging vs Swapping | Micromobility & EVs | Electric Aviation | Li-ion alternatives | Million Mile Battery | Battery Startups versus Giants | Sales & Financing Models | Ultrafast Charging a Norm | Heavy Electric Vehicles | Material Sciences in Emobility | Lithium Scarcity | Solar Power in EV Ecosystem | EV Manufacturing Paradigm | Innovations in Motors | EV Startups – a speciality | Oil Companies’ Strategies | EV Adoption Paths | Covid-19 affect on the EV Industry |