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.