EV battery swapping: Better idea or big boondoggle?

Why is the idea of battery swapping so persistently popular in the mainstream press? Perhaps it’s because people who’ve never driven an EV imagine that it needs to be like driving a legacy vehicle, with periodic stops at public stations to quickly refuel. Those who are actually involved in the EV industry tend to be more skeptical about swapping. In a recent article in IEEE Spectrum, Lawrence Ulrich equates battery swapping with hydrogen fuel cells, calling both “automotive ideas that are never quite born, but just won’t die.”

The Israeli startup Better Place pioneered robotic battery swapping in 2008, but the deal-killer soon became apparent: automakers had zero interest in standardizing their battery packs. Later, Tesla explored the technology, and built a couple of pilot swap stations in California, but soon abandoned the concept, citing lack of interest from customers. Swapping has come back from the dead, however. Chinese EV-maker NIO has embraced the concept, launching a Battery as a Service offering for customers in China, and startup Ample currently operates five battery swap stations in the San Francisco Bay Area, specifically for Uber drivers.

Battery swapping may have seemed like a good idea a decade ago, when most EVs had ranges under 100 miles, and public charging barely existed. However, in 2021, Ulrich writes, “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.” He offers a detailed explanation of the drawbacks of battery-swapping.

Jeremy Michalek, Director of Carnegie Mellon’s vehicle electrification group, calls battery swapping a relic of a bygone age, pointing out that most new EVs deliver well over 200 miles of range, and can recharge in 35 minutes or less. “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.”

Batteries are expensive, bulky and resource-intensive, and creating networks of swappable packs—which must be stored, charged and maintained—would be far more complex and costly than simply connecting EVs to the existing grid. In the swapping model, trucks would have to haul batteries between stations, and the complex machinery would require far more maintenance than chargers, which have few moving parts (and, as network operators are beginning to learn, even keeping these relatively simple devices in working order is no small task).

Even if those obstacles could be overcome, the problem that sank Better Place remains: building a swapping infrastructure would require automakers to cooperate to an unprecedented extent. “Automakers don’t standardize vehicles or batteries, and aren’t looking to start,” Ulrich writes. “The design of each automaker’s batteries is deeply entwined with unique vehicle architectures that support vast lineups of car models. 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? 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…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…and take a cut of any profits.”

Be all that as it may, why piss on battery swapping (or fuel cells)? Surely different transportation technologies can peacefully co-exist, and if a company chooses to pursue a different path, who’s it hurting? The problem is that time and investment funds are limited, and most analysts agree that the current pace of electrification is much too slow to stave off catastrophic climate change. A new report from the International Energy Agency finds that “climate pledges by governments to date—even if fully achieved—would fall well short of what is required to…give the world an even chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5° C.”

“Fast-tracking a reliable charging infrastructure has become the consensus solution,” writes Ulrich. “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.”

Source: IEEE Spectrum