A California Startup Now Offers A Full EV Battery In Just 10 Minutes
On a Wednesday afternoon in May, an Uber driver in San Francisco was about to run out of charge on his Nissan Leaf. Normally this would mean finding a place to plug in and wait for a half hour, at least. But this Leaf was different.
Instead of plugging in, the driver pulled into a swapping station near Mission Bay, where a set of robot arms lifted the car off of the ground, unloaded the depleted batteries and replaced them with a fully charged set. Twelve minutes later the Leaf pulled away with 32 kilowatt hours of energy, enough to drive about 130 miles, for a cost of $13.
A swap like this is a rare event in the U.S. The Leaf’s replaceable battery is made by Ample, one of the only companies offering a service that’s more popular in markets in Asia. In March, Ample announced that it had deployed five stations around the Bay Area. Nearly 100 Uber drivers are using them, the company says, making an average of 1.3 swaps per day. Ample’s operation is tiny compared to the >100,000 public EV chargers in the U.S.—not to mention the >150,000 gas stations running more than a million nozzles. Yet Ample’s founders Khaled Hassounah and John de Souza are convinced that it’s only a matter of time before the U.S. discovers that swapping is a necessary part of the transition to electric vehicles.
China, which is home to roughly half of the 7 million passenger EVs on the road as of last year, has more than 600 swapping stations and is on pace to have 1,000 by year’s end, according to a tally by clean-energy research group BloombergNEF. “They've already made the determination that swapping has to be a significant part of the solution,” says Hassounah, “We don't have enough deployment yet to realize that we need this in the U.S.” Even in China, however, where the swapping industry dwarfs that of the U.S., the technology is still only a small piece of the charging infrastructure.
In the U.S. most investment so far has gone into building faster plug-in stations and batteries that can accept power quickly without overheating. President Biden has proposed a target of 500,000 public chargers by 2030. His >plan, which calls for scaling and improving fast-charging networks, makes no mention of battery swapping. Yet plug-in chargers come with limits that can’t be overcome simply by adding more. They are a burden on the power grid, expensive to build, and, even at their fastest, agonizingly slow compared to gas pumps.
Hassounah and De Souza founded Ample in 2014 and have raised about $70 million to date from investors 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 batteries in a cheap, vehicle-agnostic way and believe they’ve finally cracked it. For now they are focusing on ride-hailing fleets, as professional drivers have the most need for fast charging. Late last year, Ample entered a partnership with Uber to help coordinate with the the fleet management services that provide drivers with cars, insurance, and other services. On June 10, Ample announced a separate partnership with the fleet management service Sally, which specializes in making EVs available to ride-hailing and delivery drivers. The two plan to work to together to deploy EVs and swapping 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 swapping to drivers in New York by the fall.
Sally co-founders Nicholas Williams and Adriel Gonzalez say the company chose to work with Ample because plug-in fast-charging options degrade batteries, come with high energy costs during peak use, and are too slow. “We had a supercharging concept that would probably do it in 30 minutes, but that was really too long for us,” says Williams.
Drivers in San Francisco rent Ample-ready EVs from fleet management services, just as they would for a combustion engine car, and pay the fleet manager for their swaps at the end of each week. The fleets then pay Ample by the mile for the energy, with no upfront fees for installing stations. The energy cost for fleets, according to Ample, is typically 10 to 20 percent cheaper than gas. “All the drivers that have used it have come over from gas vehicles,” says De Souza. “This is the first time they're driving an electric vehicle.”
Most EV charging in the U.S. happens at private chargers in driveways and garages, where drivers can use vehicle downtime to refill batteries slowly. But convincing Americans to ditch combustions engines and go electric means competing with the convenience of gas stations. The average fill-up, according to the NACS, a trade group for convenience stores and gas stations, takes 4.5 minutes, including the time it takes to pay. With a typical fill-up of about 12 gallons, a car that gets 25 miles per gallon can add 300 miles of range in less than five minutes. Doing the same in 40 minutes counts as ultra-fast for an electric charger. Ten such chargers on the side of a highway would need at least a megawatt connection, enough to power hundreds of homes.