Battery swapping is exactly what it sounds like, replacing a depleted battery with a charged battery, the same way you might replace batteries in a flashlight. While charging an EV battery could take half an hour or more depending on the level of charging, battery swapping could be performed in automated stations in about five minutes. Then, batteries could be recharged using low voltage, slow charging without ever making car owners wait. In a world with battery swapping, drivers wouldn’t be limited to one type of battery either. They could choose different battery capacities depending on their needs. Going on a longer trip? Get a battery with a longer range for a few weeks. With the model of battery-as-a-service (BAAS), battery ownership would stay with the manufacturer, meaning customers wouldn’t need to pay for the most expensive part of the vehicle (about 30% of the cost!). BAAS could significantly reduce the cost of a new car, making EVs more accessible for the average consumer. With so many advantages, why haven’t we seen more battery swapping stations in the U.S.?
Battery swapping has a long history, but unfortunately for its pioneers the technology creates as many challenges as it solves. The first experiments with EV battery swapping date back to the 1890s, when gas and electric cars were both new and vying for dominance. General Electric created a battery swapping service in 1912, and discontinued the service in 1924. There wasn’t much demand for electric vehicles at the time and no interest in battery standardization. It simply wasn’t a profitable investment.
The next big experiment with battery swapping technology came more than 80 years later, from the startup Better Place. The ultimately doomed Israeli company had great ambitions, but their lofty goals were undercut by grossly underestimated infrastructure costs, a lack of interest from consumers and automakers, and finally the development of DC fast charging stations. Better Place unveiled its prototype EV battery swap station in 2009 and filed for bankruptcy in 2013.
For all its potential, battery swapping has a lot of hurdles to clear before it becomes viable as a widespread solution for powering EVs, at least in the U.S. Some automakers have compared battery swapping to replacing the entire engine when a car runs out of gas. The main challenges stem from design and infrastructure. Unlike a television remote, vehicles do not have small, easily removed panels that can be popped off when it’s time to replace the battery. EV batteries are built into the structure of the car. They’re also heavy, meaning battery swap stations must invest in automated systems and robotic arms to perform the labor.
To even have the potential for a battery swap, the car needs to be designed in such a way that the battery can be reached and the housing opened from underneath the vehicle. There’s also the issue of standardization. In order for battery swapping to work on a large scale, automakers have to buy into the idea. They’d need to design their vehicles to be compatible with the batteries available at swap stations. Since many companies, like Tesla, have invested in and pride themselves on proprietary battery design, they’ll likely be reluctant to adjust their vehicle designs to accept batteries from competitors. Still, some companies are working to develop standardized EV batteries.
For example, Ample is working on a modular battery design that can adapt to many different types of vehicles. If standardization takes off, battery swapping could become the new norm.
There are advantages to battery swapping over plug-in charging. For one thing, swapping might be more reliable. EV charging stations in the US can be riddled with problems, from non-functioning chargers and broken screens to payment issues and network failures. Swapping stations are able to monitor their batteries to ensure they are in optimal condition.
They can also collect detailed information on charging history, providing insights into battery aging and health. Swapping stations can take advantage of clean energy in ways consumers might not be able to, by only charging their batteries at off-peak hours or with renewable energy sources. By avoiding fast charging, the EV batteries could stay in better condition for longer. When the batteries are no longer serviceable, the swapping stations can ensure they’ll be properly recycled. Perhaps most importantly for drivers, battery swapping is convenient, eliminating the need to plan ahead or delay a trip to charge the car.
Battery swapping has taken off in certain parts of the world. The most notable example is the Chinese company NIO, which has built over a thousand swapping stations, performed millions of battery swaps, and is currently expanding from China into Europe.
The American company, Ample, has raised billions of dollars to secure a market in the U.S., focusing on companies like Uber that require fleets of vehicles. Battery swapping could be a huge advantage for taxi services, delivery companies, freight shipping, and other organizations that prioritize time on the road over time spent parked and charging. It could also be a life saver for drivers who don’t have access to home charging, like those who live in dense city apartments.
Unfortunately for battery swapping advocates, the challenges of the technology make it unlikely to be widely accepted in the U.S. For one thing, the U.S. has already made significant investments in charging stations, including the Biden administration’s new infrastructure plan. Most American car manufacturers have focused on improving battery range and fast charging speeds, with great success. Tesla experimented with battery swapping only to toss it aside and build a network of supercharging stations.
The specter of Better Place continues to haunt the battery swapping industry and many of the problems that sank the company still plague the new start-ups. Auto manufacturers are not willing to give up on their proprietary designs for the sake of wide-spread battery standardization. With new standards recently placed on publicly available chargers, the U.S. government is unlikely to mandate standardized battery design.
Even so, battery swapping continues to make strides. One day, replacing an EV battery could be as easy as changing a tire. For companies with fleets of vehicles and drivers with limited charging options, battery swapping could be the better choice. With companies like NIO and Ample rapidly expanding, battery swapping could soon become as common and accessible as fast charging.
Written by River James, a writer, editor, and researcher based in San Diego, California. For her personal thoughts and musings, check out her Substack.