Musings on the Motoring World

Could battery-swapping solve EV ownership problems?

In the rush to fix our planet before we collectively get steamed to perfection in the planetary sized boiler of our own doing, politicians have been cranking up the rhetoric while policymakers have been busting their heads on coming up with a realistic solution idealist and realist can agree on, especially when it comes to something as deep-rooted as our century-long dependence on – and love for – motorised transportation.

No longer content with tightening emissions standards, leading political figures are going straight for cutting off the stump with proposals of a complete ban on the sale of internal combustion engines within a decade or two. Talk may be cheap, but there is already plenty of social capital in developed countries to push for the implementation of such measures.

Environmentalists believe that zero-emission battery-electric vehicles will be the solution to solving our environmental problems, manufacturers believe that the time is nigh for the technology to go mainstream, and lawmakers believe that the time is right to pull the plug on the sale of internal combustion engines. All three aren’t entirely correct, but neither are they wrong, at least, for the vast majority of people who would be eventually forced to adopt electric cars.

Despite being a far cry from its wheezy ancestors with the usable range of a ball of spit, electric cars are far from being ready in meeting the realities of the average user. Just as how usage of the telephone flourished thanks to the use of existing telegraph connections, the adoption of any new technology is only as successful as the infrastructure that supports it. And as it stands now, even with its popularity, the electric car’s tiny customer base of affluent early adopters aren’t indicative of the general population.

For a huge majority of electric car owners, keeping their cars charge isn’t a problem as this 2016 survey of European and North American electric car owners points out. Between 88 to 96 per cent of respondents say they use home charger units, with around a quarter of owners visiting a 240V Level 2 public charger, which can recharge a battery in between four to six hours, at least once a week.

When it comes to fast chargers, the stats also show that electric car owners visit it far less frequently. This result could be explained with data from an American-based 2017 survey where more than half its respondents lived within 10km of a public charging station and drive less than 160km between recharges.

If you have a home charger, and by that extension, a garage, electric car ownership is a perfect bed of roses. However, if you don’t, electric car ownership becomes a rather inconvenient a game of whack-a-mole of trying to find a place to plug your car in. Though the aforementioned survey data points out many owners live close, or commutes close to a public charger, it could be the case of the availability of a local charger was a primary factor in the owners’ purchasing decision.

Even in a robust electric car market like Norway, the availability of public charging stations is the main non-financial consideration for consumers in adopting electric cars, and if you live in densely populated urban areas, where designated parking is a luxury few can afford, the situation gets even trickier. Electric car adoption is still very much in its infancy, and at this stage, it is easy for local councils to create designated parking spots for electric vehicles as an incentive to grow the minority of owners, but once that minority starts looking like a majority then the game changes.   

Idealistically, cities would need to install streetside charging stations at every other parking space to cater to the needs of residents and users, but realistically such an undertaking would be immense, especially in urban areas. Bloomberg estimates that there already as much as 630,000 public chargers in the world, most of which are located in China, with the International Energy Agency forecasting public charger demand to surpass 20 million by 2030. Growing the number by 30-times in the span of a decade is audacious in both scale and cost, and some electricity suppliers are doubtful if the power grid wouldn’t be able to take the combined load of everyone plugging in their cars for the night, even with the use of ‘Smart Chargers’. Simply put, our motorised society is built around watering holes rather than aqueducts.

The answer for many of these woes would be high voltage fast chargers, which are the closest thing electric car owners have to a traditional service station. These ‘pumps’, like those used in Tesla’s supercharger network, are able to juice up an EV’s battery to 80 per cent full in as little as 20 minutes, which EV advocates tout as being nearly as quick as the time you would spend at refuelling a car and getting a cup of coffee. Great, problem solved, though by solved means risking damage to the most expensive component in the car every time you top it up just to get to work.  

For all its convenience, using a fast charger is akin to stuffing your face at every meal without so much as pausing to chew. As expected of such gluttony, it is a fast track to hard shits and most of the time organ failure, as this Tesla owner cautions from his experience of using a fast charger too often that led to a notable degradation in the health of his Tesla’s battery. This isn’t due to Tesla’s infamous shoddy build quality, but no thanks to the physics of ramming in the power with a high current, which in turns generates more heat and leads to battery degradation.

Sustaining your electric car with fast chargers isn’t ideal for users who cannot forgo the loss in resale value on their daily ride. These very high voltage fast chargers are meant as a secondary means of extending the range of electric vehicles on longer drives but not a way for the average electric car owner to subsist on a daily basis.

As it is with many technological gold rushes, the ideal electric charging system that is as convenient and quick as filling up a tank of petrol was pioneered 12 years ago. The Isreali startup Better Place developed a battery swapping system that featured an automated platform that removes the electric car’s battery and replaces it with a fully charged one.

No more sitting around blowing bubbles with your spit while waiting for your electric car to get a decent charge. All you needed to do was drive up to a Better Place station, park on a platform, let the robots do its work, and before you know it, off you go with a full charge. What’s more, this wasn’t a pie-in-the-sky concept, Better Place attracted $850 million in funding from investors like General Electric, HSBC, and Morgan Stanley.

The company built 37 such stations around Israel with Renault-Nissan agreeing to build a fleet of 100,000 electric cars that could have their batteries swapped by the automated system for customers to lease. Even Deutsche Bank’s analysts believed that the company could be a paradigm shift in the electric car game.

Sadly, while this idea seemed good during the company’s conception in 2007 during the infamous commodity price boom, when the fear of soaring oil prices subsided and consumers flocked back to traditional gas-guzzlers, Better Place’s lofty ambitions came crashing down and the company was declared bankrupt in 2013.

Economic conditions, while hugely influential, wasn’t the entire reason behind Better Place’s failure. The electric car industry back then – as much as it is now – is still the lawless Wild West gold rush where legislation was skeletal. With so many prospectors looking for their golden ticket, nobody has any time on agreeing to a battery standard as everyone else was building their vehicle architecture around their proprietary battery designs. With so many varying battery designs, chemistry, and engineering, and no optimised setup, it was impossible for any agreement on a standardised battery swapping system, what more with no government oversight that operates on years of careful study instead of acting on intuition.  

Sadly Better Place has been consigned to a forgotten footnote in the rise of the electric car, though its story shouldn’t be entirely forgotten as battery-swapping promises answers to some of the most fundamental shortcomings of electric cars.

For one, having a facility to conduct standardised battery charging will not only ensure the preservation of battery range and condition but also transfer the cost of the vehicle away from the owner. With battery costs being the main bulk of an electric car’s cost, Better Place’s founder Shai Agassi believed that his subscription system that leased the electric car packaged with the battery swapping service was far cheaper than buying and operating a traditional ICE vehicle. Added to that you didn’t have to worry about a degraded battery eking away at its resale values at the end of the day.

Looking further down the line battery-swapping had the potential of freeing customers from electric car obsolescence. With batteries being an integral part of the electric car architecture, the emergence of newer and better batteries coupled to its own declining battery health would hasten any electric car’s journey to obsolescence. By separating the car from the battery, say with a standardised battery-swapping system, users are not only assured better-maintained batteries but are able to upgrade it with better batteries, prolonging the serviceable life of their cars.

Thankfully there are still a few companies that are exploring the possibilities of battery swapping, most notably motorcycle maker Kymco and electric scooter startup Gogoro, while Chinese electric car brand, Nio, recently unveiled a battery swapping station for its ES8 electric SUV. Though whether these ventures will gain enough limelight and make a case for itself to alter the general public’s expectations remains to be seen.

With new strides in battery technologies that promise batteries that have no heat fluctuations during charging and developments in fast chargers, we may never know if Better Place was too idealistic or a realist solution that was far too ahead of its time. Perhaps when the electric car finally comes of age we will have an answer, that is, if we get there.

2 replies on “Could battery-swapping solve EV ownership problems?”

Thomas Weber, the chief of R D at Mercedes, said that the system tested by them was very dangerous, as electrocution could occur easily during the manual change. They build about 40 electric buses for the project and tested it rigorously, with a manual horizontal battery swapping system. Well, the things and electronics have evolved since the, but Weber may have a point on that.

Yes that is true, not denying that a manually operated system does pose a significant risk to user and operator, but I believe with further development and automation the battery swapping process can be made foolproof, after all there was a time when we could easily swap handphone or laptop batteries without the need for any tools or professional guidance.

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