A California Startup Now Offers a Full EV Battery in Just 10 Minutes

(Bloomberg) - On a Wednesday afternoon in May, an Uber driver ran out of charge on his Nissan Leaf in San Francisco. Usually this would mean finding a place to plug in and waiting for at least half an hour. But this sheet was different.
Instead of plugging in the plug, the driver drove to a swap station near Mission Bay, where a set of robotic arms lifted the car off the ground, discharged the dead batteries, and replaced them with a fully charged one. Twelve minutes later, the Leaf drove away on 32 kilowatt hours of power, enough to travel about 130 miles, and cost $ 13.
Such an exchange is a rare occurrence in the United States. The Leaf's replaceable battery is made by Ample, one of the few companies to offer a service that is more popular in Asian markets. In March, Ample announced that it had five stations in the Bay Area. Almost 100 Uber drivers use them, the company says, making an average of 1.3 swaps a day. Ample's operations are tiny compared to the 100,000 public EV chargers in the U.S. - not to mention the 150,000 gas stations that operate more than a million gas pumps. However, Ample founders Khaled Hassounah and John de Souza believe that it is only a matter of time before the US discover that replacement is a necessary part of the transition to electric vehicles.
According to a tally by the clean energy research group BloombergNEF, China, which has about half of the 7 million passenger electric vehicles on the roads last year, has more than 600 replacement stations and is expected to have 1,000 by the end of the year. "You've already realized that swapping has to be an essential part of the solution," says Hassounah. “We don't have enough deployments yet to realize that we need this in the US.” But even in China, where the barter industry dwarfs the US, technology is still only a small part of the charging infrastructure.
So far, most of the investments in the US have gone into building faster plug-in stations and batteries that can draw power quickly without overheating. President Biden has proposed a target of 500,000 public chargers by 2030. His plan to scale and improve fast charging networks makes no mention of battery changes. But plug-in chargers have limitations that cannot be overcome by simply adding them. They put a strain on the power grid, are expensive to build and, compared to petrol pumps, excruciatingly slow even at the fastest possible moment.
Hassounah and De Souza founded Ample in 2014 and have raised around $ 70 million from investors to date, including the venture arms of oil and gas giants Royal Dutch Shell plc and Repsol SA. They've spent the last seven years studying how to swap out batteries the cheap, vehicle-independent way and believe they finally cracked it. Currently they are focused on ride hailing fleets as professional drivers have the greatest need for fast charging. Late last year, Ample partnered with Uber to help coordinate with the fleet management services that provide cars, insurance, and other services to drivers. On June 10th, Ample announced a separate partnership with fleet management service Sally, which specializes in providing EVs for ride-hailing and delivery drivers. The two plan to work together to provide electric vehicles and exchange stations in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Sally aims to have hundreds of Ample-ready Kia Niro EVs running in the Bay Area by the end of this summer and to begin offering the swaps to drivers in New York by fall.
Sally co-founders, Nicholas Williams and Adriel Gonzalez, say the company chose to work with Ample because plug-in fast charge options degrade batteries, have high energy costs and are too slow during peak loads. "We had a Supercharger concept that would probably do it in 30 minutes, but that was really too long for us," says Williams.
Drivers in San Francisco rent ready-to-use electric vehicles from fleet management services as they would an internal combustion engine, and pay the fleet manager to swap them at the end of each week. The fleets then pay Ample per mile for the energy, with no upfront fees for installing stations. According to Ample, the energy costs for fleets are usually 10 to 20 percent cheaper than for gas. “All of the drivers who used it came from gas vehicles,” says De Souza. "This is the first time they have driven an electric vehicle."
Most EV charging in the US is done on private chargers in driveways and garages, where drivers can use vehicle downtime to slowly recharge the batteries. But convincing Americans to abandon internal combustion engines and switch to electric means rivaling the convenience of gas stations. According to NACS, a retail group for convenience stores and petrol stations, the average refueling takes 4.5 minutes, including the time to pay. With a typical fuel tank of about 12 gallons, a car that reaches 25 miles per gallon can add 300 miles of range in less than five minutes. Doing the same thing in 40 minutes is considered ultrafast for an electric charger. Ten such chargers on the roadside would require at least one megawatt connection, enough to supply hundreds of households with electricity.
The swap offers, at least in theory, an elegant solution to the problem of quickly charging electric vehicles without putting a strain on the power grid. While an ultra-fast charger acts as a fire hose and provides a boost of energy when required, the Ample system works like a garden hose that constantly fills small buckets and passes them on one after the other. However, attempts to swap in the USA have so far been unsuccessful. Tesla experimented with the technology in 2013, but soon gave it up and instead decided to build its network of "superchargers". Startup Better Place, which wanted to sell replaceable batteries in its electric vehicles, went bankrupt that same year after raising nearly $ 1 billion.
There are two basic reasons why the electric vehicle industry in the US has so far chosen plug-in instead of replacement. The first is weight. Batteries are heavy. Every kilometer of range adds a few pounds to the weight of an EV battery, so a car with a range of 400 kilometers might carry a backpack that weighs up to 1,000 pounds. Replacing a pack this size isn't as easy as swapping out a few D-cells from a flashlight. Typically, it costs around $ 1 million to build a station that can handle these loads, according to De Souza.
Ample solves the weight problem by breaking the battery into pieces. The company uses a modular system of lithium-ion packs, each about the size of a shoebox, and arranges them on trays. Each module holds about three kilowatt hours of power and weighs about 30 lb. Most cars can accommodate 16 to 32 modules, depending on their size and the desired range. The modules are stacked on four or five trays at a time, with a typical trolley holding three to five trays. The robotic arms in Ample's stations move the trays one at a time so they never have to carry more than around 150 pounds. The average swap takes ten minutes. Ample's goal is to reduce it to five minutes by the end of this year.
Each station holds batteries worth about ten cars, all of which are constantly charged as cars come and go. With a connection of just 60 to 100 kilowatts, they can deliver between 500 kilowatts and 1.5 megawatts of energy per hour. Ample says it can build and operate one of its exchange stations in a space the size of two parking lots for tens of thousands of dollars. No digging is required as power can be drawn from an overhang connection. “Give us six weeks. We can build a whole city, ”says Hassounah.
If Ample can keep this promise, it would not only undercut the existing exchange options, but also most fast chargers. According to a BloombergNEF survey last year, the cost of installing ultra-fast chargers to dig in the ground ranged from $ 111,000 to $ 333,000 per megawatt, with hardware starting at around $ 30,000 per port and up costing $ 125,000.
While handling heavy batteries is a chore, the biggest challenge in replacing them is getting automakers to change the way they build electric vehicles. "Compatibility is a massive issue," said Ryan Fisher, electrified transportation analyst at BloombergNEF. "When you talk about doing this across multiple manufacturers, it gets pretty complicated pretty quickly."
In addition, there are other ways to smooth out the peaks and troughs of energy demand without making changes to EVs already on the road. The startup Freewire, for example, stores electricity in batteries in its chargers so that they can draw electricity from the grid and deliver it quickly to cars.
When Tesla was toying with swapping, it built a proprietary system with its own interchangeable packs. The exchange of stations in China largely followed the same model, with automakers building their own networks. NIO, the industry leader, has executed more than 2 million swaps at 192 stations. The BloombergNEF analysis shows that NIO's stations are exceptionally efficient in delivering electricity with an average of 1,543 kilowatt hours per day per station - 33 times the average public connector in China. But building multiple proprietary exchange networks in the US doesn't make much sense. "It's almost like every car company has to build its own gas stations across the country," says De Souza. And creating a standard battery pack for any electric vehicle is also a non-starter. Automakers will not lose control of the most expensive part of an electric vehicle and one of the most important ways to differentiate themselves from the competition.
Instead of asking the automaker to adapt, Ample created a flexible system that adapts to the automaker. “We built an adapter plate that is the same shape as the original battery,” says Hassounah. "So it's an adapter plate for one vehicle, a slightly different plate for the other."
Each plate is designed to connect to the car just like the original battery, with the same screws, electrical connection and software - and to the same safety standards. The plate that holds the battery trays never leaves the car. "You just put it in and it works," says Hassounah, "like changing a tire."
Ample says it works with five manufacturers and has built panels for ten models so far. Nondisclosure agreements forbid them from telling which automaker, but models that can be seen in their promotional materials include the Nissan Leaf, Kia Niro, and Mercedes-Benz EQC. The idea is that automakers can offer replaceable battery packs as an option in their electric vehicles. The biggest hurdle right now is getting the auto companies, which are already struggling with supply chain disruptions, to integrate Ample into their production. For the time being, Sally and Ample plan to retrofit the Kia Niro with replaceable batteries. The hope is that when Sally and other fleet managers say they want to order hundreds of thousands of Ample-enabled cars, it will help get manufacturers to build them.
"The industry is still in its infancy," says Fisher. "So the proof is in the pudding."
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