We like to talk about range anxiety, but the reality is we’re dealing with charging anxiety when it comes to EVs. It’s great that an electric vehicle can cover 300 miles on a charge, but if the infrastructure is sparse and, in many cases,, the ability to cover hundreds of miles on a single charge just means you’re hundreds of miles from home if things go sideways.
Yes, the infrastructure is improving, and a big driver of that is government-funded financial initiatives for charging station companies to improve uptime.(North American Charging Standard) after the initial push by Ford — a company that sent employees out into the field to see how well the charging network was working and seems to have determined not well enough and signed a deal with Tesla.
Another group of seven automakers has. They’ve announced a new charging network that will allegedly rival and overtake Tesla’s Supercharger network — good news until you realize it’ll be a year before their first station goes live.
But there’s another way to keep EVs on the road, and Daimler’s truck and bus division Mitsubishi Fuso is testing out a solution from Ample.
has had battery swapping stations on the ground in the San Francisco Bay Area for a few years, servicing select drivers with specially modified cars. Partnering with Mitsubishi Fuso to outfit the latest version of the company’s eCanter electric light-duty panel trucks validates Ample’s business model and could keep those delivery trucks on the road far longer during the day.
There’s another way to keep EVs on the road
Like the testing taking place in Northern California, the panel trucks vehicles will pull up to a station and be lifted into the air, and a series of tiny robots would remove and replace proprietary battery modules in a targeted time of five minutes. The batteries that were removed were stored and charged in a side compartment as the station gets ready for another swap.
Earlier this year, Ample unveiled its latest station iteration that cuts the swapping time from 10 minutes to five and reduces some of the complexity to increase robustness. It also showed off the taller swapping station needed to accommodate light-duty trucks like the ones from Mitsubishi Fuso.
It’s a big jump from a company that years ago felt like it would be eclipsed by a growing charging infrastructure that, as of yet,.
Smart, better, faster, fleeter
Ample’s focus is currently on fleets. At its new station demonstration event earlier this year, an Uber driver had just completed some trips and was ready to charge their vehicle — but instead opted to quickly swap out the batteries with the Ample station. The goal to reach parity with gas stations is nearly there. Still, it will be tough to beat a system that’s been generations in the making, and its energy delivery system is a liquid you can just pump into a vehicle.
Battery swap stations can be set up in three days
One thing that Ample has over legacy refueling stations is that its battery swap stations can be set up in three days. Give them a flat slab of concrete, and they deliver the parts flat-packed to be assembled. The first stations required two weeks, but like the rest of the setup, it’s been modified to increase efficiency.
For example, in the earlier iteration, the battery swap looked like a dance of robots and battery modules. Now it’s less impressive as most of the action happens out of view of the outside world.
“When we first started, we were excited about robots,” Ample CEO and founder Khaled Hassounah said. An earlier iteration of the swapping station lifted the vehicle above the ground via its tires like a lift at a service station. This happened without a corresponding platform rising up with the vehicle.
With that system, the driver and passenger were essentially trapped in the vehicle after it was hoisted into the air to allow the robots to do their work. Now, the driver and passengers can step out of the vehicle during a swap thanks to a platform that raises up with the vehicle.
Smaller batteries = flexibility
The company has also expanded the vehicles it supports. At its research facility, we noted the Fuso panel truck. When asked, Hassounah said that this updated generation swapping station had a higher canopy than the original swapping station and that the lift now adjusted itself to both the front and back wheels, allowing for multiple-size vehicles to use the same station. According to Ample, it now supports vehicles from small cars to large Class 3 trucks.
“When we first started we were excited about robots”
The need to support a variety of vehicles is also one of the reasons why Ample switches out multiple modules from a vehicle instead of one giant pack. While modularity isn’t as fast as swapping a pack, you can fit modules into any car, and the system is compatible with future vehicles. Plus, as battery technology improves, an EV will have a longer lifecycle because it’s not stuck with one pack that’s slowly degrading. Instead, every time it swaps battery, it has the best Ample has to offer.
This is all impressive in theory, but it requires automotive partners. EV startup Fisker has announced thaton the Ocean electric SUV in the first quarter of 2024. Ample states that it has other partners in the works but couldn’t share any additional details.
Fisker is a nice get, but the company doesn’t even have a vehicle for sale, and until there’s a legacy automaker ready to build a vehicle that supports Ample’s battery modules at scale, the company will have to keep asking automakers to add their battery swapping system to a vehicle instead of a standard battery pack during manufacturing.
That’s a tough ask, as many of the automakers are now banding together to build a charging infrastructure for privately owned vehicles. They might be interested in outfitting a system like Ample’s in select vehicles. But to sell one of these to the general public that’s a huge endeavor. It’s like asking an automaker to sell a car that can only get gas at one service station.
Adding energy to an EV might not be as easy as refueling a gas-powered vehicle, but you can get electricity nearly anywhere, including your house. It’s not ideal, but it can be done. That’s not good enough for fleet managers, though.
For the fleets Ample is targeting, the big sell is that they won’t have to set up a charging infrastructure at their vehicle storage facility. If a business has a few vehicles, AC charging stations are doable. But if a company has dozens of EVs in its fleet, setting up a charging infrastructure can be difficult and expensive, and relying on the public infrastructure in its current state means these businesses could be losing money because charging locations are full or those locations are having issues with the charging stations.
It’s a nice closed system where the vehicles don’t venture out of a particular geographic area very often, and part of the business plan is working with a battery-swapping system like Ample’s.
For Ample, Daimler, and fans of battery-swapping technology, the Mitsubishi Fuso partnership is a big deal. The specially built vehicles will be tested on public roads in Japan this winter. With a five-minute battery swap target, the eCanter trucks should be back on the road as quickly as a traditional gas-powered vehicle.
Less power, more swaps
While the stations can be set up alongside one another, they pull less power than some of the charging station solutions out right now. Hassounah said that they could set up stations that pull 200 kW from the grid, but the sweet spot is pulling 100 kW. So it’s less strain on the local power infrastructure because it’s constantly charging batteries between swaps as it gets the modules ready for the next vehicle.
“We’re delivering energy at 600 to 1000 kW, but we’re charging at 100 kW,” Hassounah said. Each station stores, on average, about 10 cars’ worth of batteries and about six large trucks. Each module that’s swapped out has 5 kWh of battery capacity.
The complexity of swapping
While Ample’s system makes sense for fleets and Fisker seems to be excited about swaps, there’s a reason why this type of system hasn’t caught on in the US as it has in China. It’s all about the packs.
“The economics of swapping don’t really work”
“The Chinese EV market is far larger than the US, but battery swapping so far has mainly been. They’ve designed all of their models around a common battery pack format,” Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst for Guidehouse Insights, told The Verge.
Nio has also offered free swaps to customers, similar to the way Tesla used to offer free charging. Tesla famously tried but then abandoned the idea of battery swapping.
“Here in North America — aside from Tesla — everyone has had far fewer sales, and the economics of swapping don’t really work if you have to support a lot of different pack formats. Without battery standardization, the market just isn’t there for swapping. Standardization isn’t going to happen while battery technology is still evolving,” Abuelsamid said.
Cheaper cars (sort of)
If this does make its way to passenger cars, the vehicles that would potentially be sold sans batteries or already fitted with Ample batteries. The owners would subscribe to Ample’s service and pay a cost per kWh. Ample’s target is to be 20 percent cheaper than gas. How that stacks up against just charging at night or hitting a DC fast charger during the day is tough to determine at this point. But for fleet managers, if it means the cars stay on the road longer and they don’t have to set up their own charging stations, it’s likely worth it.
Ample’s still a fleet-focused company. Think Ubers, delivery services, municipal vehicles, and the like. It doesn’t see charging station companies as competitors. Instead, both types of charging solutions are the means to an end. Replacing gas-powered vehicles with something cleaner, quieter, and more efficient. Just some of these EVs will get a fun little 3-to 4-foot lift into the sky every time they get near zero charge.
Meanwhile, the rest of us will still be charging at home overnight and, hopefully soon, have access to more robust, more accessible, and more operational charging infrastructure. There are many paths to reducing our carbon footprint in the world. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Battery swaps sound perfect for fleets but are too complex for passenger vehicles. At least for now.