What happened to swappable batteries for electric vehicles?

In 1938 a company called Battery Traction Ltd was set up in Britain. It aimed to speed the advent of electric vehicles by building a network of charging points, and battery stations where you could pull in and swap your depleted battery for a fresh one. The business was overtaken by the Second World War and never got off the ground. EF Schumacher was a founder, and the initiative gets a fleeting mention in his biography. Otherwise, that visionary idea is long forgotten. Almost 80 years later, it’s more crucial than ever before.

If you’re driving a petrol car and you begin to run out of fuel, you can pull into a filling station and top up. There’s an extensive network of petrol stations and drivers are well served. With an electric car, charging points are still few and far between, at least where I live. Where they do exist, you’ll have to plug your car in for a matter of hours. Even rapid charge stations take 30 minutes.

So wouldn’t it make sense to have an EV lane at the petrol station, where you can pull in and change battery? If it were possible to swap in a fresh one and motor on, electric cars would be as easy to refuel as petrol cars. It would overcome one of the big obstacles to their adoption. Why hasn’t it happened, I wonder.

It’s not for lack of trying. US company Better Place pioneered this kind of network and began installing battery stations in 2008 in Israel. They even developed a robot that unloaded and loaded the batteries automatically as you trundled along on a conveyor. After much hype from entrepreneur Shai Agassi, it went bankrupt in 2013 and nothing remains of its network. Investors lost hundreds of millions on Better Place, which will make it harder to fund similar schemes in future. But it remains a good idea.

Better Place failed because it over-reached and over-promised, and spread itself too thin. It also attracted too much money too early. In order to succeed, it needed car manufacturers to design cars with a standard battery. Only Renault actually backed the idea, and did so with just one model – the Renault Fluence. No, I don’t remember that one either. If the company had done more groundwork before the TED talks and Silicon Valley cash waterfall began, it might still be here today. Instead it burned bright and disappeared, with all the millions spent.

While we wait for decent EV charging infrastructure, competing ideas abound. Range extending engines are one, or electric highways. Rapid charging stations are another. Tesla are putting all their effort into quick charging rather than swappable batteries. But some are still prepared to entertain the idea. A company called Greenway tried it in Slovakia, serving delivery vans rather than cars. In China electric bus fleets use battery swapping rather than taking the vehicles off the road for hours at a time in the middle of the working day. The French government announced a competition in 2015 to encourage its car manufacturers to create an affordable EV with a switchable battery.

The biggest boost for the idea has come from India. Entrepreneur Chetan Maini created India’s first EV – the Reva (marketed as the G-Wiz in Britain). Further models have followed, and his latest plan is to make them affordable. The main way to do that is to remove the cost of the battery. Drivers will buy the car and lease the battery, which they’ll switch when they need to recharge. This will bring the cost of an electric vehicle to parity with cheap Indian petrol cars, and there’s every chance that this will finally be the impetus needed to give us a genuine EV battery network.

That doesn’t mean we’ll get one in Britain though. Like different voltages or socket shapes, or the fact that some countries drive on the left and others on the right, we’re going to see some variations around the world. Some places might end up with battery swapping, others with wireless charging infrastructure or a network of fast charging points. Britain hasn’t committed in any direction yet, but tends towards the latter. It will be interesting to see what India and China do, as it’s entirely possible that the next generation of drivers there leapfrog straight to a low cost electric vehicle.

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11 Comments on “What happened to swappable batteries for electric vehicles?”

  1. daveyone1 April 24, 2017 at 8:55 pm #

    Reblogged this on World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum..

  2. DevonChap April 24, 2017 at 9:20 pm #

    The problem with swappable batteries is the degree of standardization they require and the capital they tie up. Battery technology is evolving so fast that any major investment in the infrastructure for this will soon be out of date. To have enough batteries to swap you have to invest a lot of capital in assets that will probably soon be obsolete. The rate of progress in rapid charging is such that it seems likely in a few years it will down to the kind of length of time you currently spend filling up your tank.

    I think the important thing is not to get fixed on particular technologies. It doesn’t matter if electric cars are charged by overhead wires, embedded induction loops, rapid charging or battery swapping. We just want mobility. This is why we let the market sort this out as that is likely to let the technology that works for its users win out. Government planning has planners who decide on their favoured technologies to the exclusion of other better ones.

    Just like modular mobile phones it’s an idea that seems good, gets tested by the market and fails. It might come back better or not but doesn’t matter (unless you invested in it).

    • Jeremy Williams April 25, 2017 at 10:41 am #

      Correct, and with the exception of France’s competition all the examples above are businesses making their pitch to the market, and sinking or swimming accordingly. There’s no need for governments to select for us, though support that encourages innovation and facilitates pilot projects is welcome – as we’ve seen with inductive charging.

      I take your point on capital, though it’s possible to do this with specific niche markets and build up a sustainable business that way. A company could serve a particular fleet of vehicles for example, like the bus and van companies that are making this work at the moment. Tesla have experimented with just serving their car owners network.

      I don’t think batteries would be obsolete though, not if they’re designed with upgrading or recycling in mind. Like an AA battery, there’s lots of room for improvement and innovation within a standard format. That’s what I’d like to see. If car companies could get organised and get some basic principles in place around size and shape and connection, it would open up all sorts of new possibilities. That will happen as EVs and battery technology takes off, but it’s early days yet. It took the mobile phone industry 20 years to get anywhere near a standard phone charger, so I don’t expect it to be quick.

  3. Dave April 24, 2017 at 9:57 pm #

    Is it not the case that when you buy a Renault the price of the battery is excluded; it is rented to you, I think. You keep the same battery for several years, paying a fee per annum.

    • Jeremy Williams April 25, 2017 at 10:29 am #

      Sure, that’s Reva in India that are planning to do that, not Renault.

  4. prometheuseducation April 25, 2017 at 2:52 pm #

    Sure the concept of having swappable batteries might still be a little too early for it to work, but hey I am sure with enough thought put into it someone could come up with a workable system! Which is why it’s awesome that you are sharing stuff like that, hopefully it inspires someone to innovate and to come up with a brilliant solution to this little problem!

    Thank you for the post and keep up the awesome work man!

  5. greenl4l April 25, 2017 at 9:50 pm #

    Reblogged this on Green Living 4 Live.

  6. Andy May 5, 2017 at 8:55 pm #

    I saw a story on BBC America about a Chinese train manufacturer.
    They are making street cars that use capacitors instead of batteries. At each stop the capacitors are re-charged in 30 seconds. No overhead wiring and no batteries.
    It seemed like an awesome indea.

  7. Graeme Harding May 16, 2017 at 1:13 pm #

    As we well-known with the fact that electric cars are the modern face of automobile industries, it definitely brings revolutionary change in the automobile world. But since its invention, we have found some common problems with the batteries and charging system. Here from this article we came to know about the swappable batteries for electric vehicle, I hope it is helpful to boost the performance of electric cars.

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