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2 Dec 18

EV battery charging or swapping?

Gogoro (Taiwan) is building a battery swap system for electric scooters, while the Chinese EV car manufacturer ION is setting up a similar service for EVs. Could this system solve the problems of EV anxiety and charging time or is it but wishful thinking?

Revival of battery swapping

With two different companies coming up with battery swap systems for electric vehicles, the strategy regains attention after a while of silence. Gogoro deployed a battery swapping system for electric smart scooters in Taiwan, while Chinese EV manufacturer NIO is building a network of battery swap stations in China for its electric vehicles.

ION already operates in other cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing, San Jose, Munich and London. The battery swap network will be deployed on the G4 road, covering a distance of 2,285km connecting some key Chinese cities such as Shijiazhuang, Zhengzhou, Wuhan, Changsha, and Guangzhou. The G4 may be the first one to start but the company plans to expand the network to other major highways and connect the Chinese central eastern region next year.

Ultra-Fast Charging

Battery swapping would mean a lot of advantages for EVs, especially considering the charging time, which is now often seen as an argument not to switch from an ICE to an EV. Charging an EV takes up to a couple of hours, with a minimum of about half an hour for super chargers.

In this time span, a couple of charged batteries could be swapped at a station, and the driver would not even have to leave the car, since the replacement will be performed by a robot. Moreover, another battery swap company, BattSwap, claims it can change out a battery in less than a minute; which will be the same time for every battery regardless the range.

In terms of charging time, it must be accepted that this cannot be increased endlessly, since fast charging results in an unwanted production of heat. Therefore, (super)fast charging systems will require powerful cooling systems to prevent vehicles from overheating, resulting in energy loss.

Total Cost of Ownership

Another advantage of battery swapping could be the decreased total cost of ownership (TCO), since the TCO is still high for EVs, and largely caused by the cost of its battery. In case of battery swapping, a third-party would have the ownership of batteries, and will be liable for replacing the batteries.

Moreover, controlled charging strategies can benefit the electricity grid, by charging during off-peak hours, which will benefit the battery owners as well, as energy costs are lower. The battery will also benefit as controlled charging can prevent damage and increases the battery lifetime.

Viability and reliability

Still, the above-mentioned companies are not the beginning, but the revival of the idea of battery swapping. In 2013, Tesla experimented with battery swapping technology stations, however the response to its pilot was low; despites demonstrating that 2 EV batteries could be swapped in the time it took to refuel an ICE Audi.

Earlier, in 2008, there was the US battery-swap startup Better Place, however, its failure might have slowed down the development of the system again. The unicorn – a startup raising investment of over $1 billion – set up small networks of battery swapping systems in Israel and Denmark. Similar to the telecom industry, drivers could purchase driving distance by subscription. With the system the company aimed to reduce the purchase price of EVs with up to $5,000 less than an average ICE car in the USA.

Despite high customer satisfaction, Better Place did not reach a big audience, was thin spread and was not supported by any OEM, resulting in a lack of standardised batteries necessary for the system. Combined with the lower amount of EVs on the road in both countries than expected, the company went bankrupt in 2013.

Nevertheless, these counter-arguments might actually merely proof Better Place was ahead of its time rather than a useless strategy.

Both cases are the most famous ones, but the first battery swapping system dates out of 1938 by the company Battery Traction LtD in Britain. In Slovakia, Greenway focused on delivery vans, while in China electric bus fleets use battery swapping to avoid the vehicles being off-road too long.

Battery swapping in the future

Despite the advantages, so far, battery swapping systems haven’t taken off yet, due to issues around standardisation of batteries, commercial viability and reliability. Nevertheless, Gogoro and ION brought the battery swapping idea back on table and it may be here to stay now.

Image: The battery swapping system of Gogoro.

Authored by: Fien Van den steen