A Nissan Leaf was driven into a San Francisco skyscraper on a bright Thursday morning, parked on a platform, and the driver exited the vehicle. The vehicle was then hoisted into the air by the platform. The electric vehicle’s batteries were carefully removed by robot arms and replaced with new, fully charged ones. It only took around 10 minutes to finish everything up.
Hundreds of battery changes are performed daily by Ample, the startup that created the station and operates a dozen more like it across the Bay Area.
John de Souza, Ample’s cofounder, and president explains, “People talk about ‘range anxiety.'” However, your worries would vanish if I handed you the keys to a gas-powered vehicle with a 200-mile range. That’s because if it runs out of gas, all it takes is a quick five-minute fill-up to get you back on the road. People have a problem with “charging anxiety.”
Fast chargers can replenish an electric vehicle’s battery in as little as half an hour, but they are prohibitively expensive to construct. In other words, “the faster you charge, the more energy you lose as heat,” as de Souza puts it. The price tag continues to rise rapidly. A 1- or 2-megawatt charger, which is extremely costly and difficult to optimize, might be required to fully charge a vehicle in five minutes.
Many owners of electric vehicles charge their vehicles overnight while they sleep. And as battery range keeps growing (a Tesla Model S from 2023 can travel over 400 miles on a single charge), charging may become less of a problem. However, battery changing may make more sense for city dwellers who don’t have access to an electrical outlet at home or who must commute long distances each day.
Battery-swapping businesses are booming in China because of the country’s large population of electric vehicles and the fact that most EV owners live in urban high-rises. One Chinese business, Nio, already has hundreds of battery switching stations in operation, and it has plans to add another thousand this year. Only a select few startups are actually constructing thousands of stores. (Other companies in Asia specialize in battery exchange for mopeds and electric rickshaws; Gogoro, in Taiwan, performs hundreds of thousands of battery exchanges daily.)
This is not a novel idea. Battery shifting was first tried in the 1940s by early electric vehicle fleets. Recent attempts have also been unsuccessful; an Israeli firm called Better Place, which began operations in 2007, shut down operations in 2013. In 2013, Tesla launched a single swapping station, but it was shortly shut down due to low usage.
What is Ample Trying to Solve?
Ample is working to solve the most pressing problems it foresaw with previous attempts, such as the need for automakers to alter the designs of their vehicles. De Souza argues that asking automakers to redesign their products is impossible. And you have to figure out a way for batteries from different manufacturers to be interchangeable.
In place of the factory-installed battery, the modular battery used in Ample’s design may be swapped into any vehicle. By disassembling it into “modular components” (about the size of two computers and a bit thicker), as de Souza puts it, “you are able to rearrange them like Lego pieces to fit into different vehicles.” (The compact design also makes it simpler for a robot to transport than a conventionally sized and weighted EV battery.) The electronics are made to function with various automobile systems.
To reach the fleet market, Ample must continue to collaborate with automakers, who will offer variants of their vehicles equipped with the new modular batteries. It has partnered with a fleet management firm in the Bay Area to provide Uber drivers with leased vehicles. An app is used by drivers to locate the closest battery swapping station; at these stations, the software is installed to reduce the time spent waiting in line and maximize the use of each battery.
Depending on the time of day, the cost of charging may be more or lower than the cost of petrol for a conventional vehicle, but the company’s goal is to make its service competitive with or cheaper than the cost of petrol. De Souza claims that his company’s strategy is applicable to delivery fleets, rental car fleets, and other large fleets and that the company hopes to expand into working with individual consumers in the future.
Ample has 12 exchanging stations in the Bay Area and is planning to grow with the support of a $15 million grant from the California Energy Commission. It has also started collaborating with major fleets to set up networks of its stations around Europe.
The stations are simple to build and are placed in convenient areas. “We spent a lot of time making sure that we could deploy them very quickly,” adds de Souza. Since “no construction is required,” “a station can be deployed in a matter of days” by finding a couple of parking spaces with access to electricity.