Battery Swapping Won’t Work for Ford, But it Doesn’t Matter…

One of Better Place's robotic battery swap stations, in action.According to this FastCompany article, Ford Motors is not too keen on the notion of designing its future electric vehicles to be compatible with battery-swap infrastructure, such as that developed by Better Place. Sue Cischke, Ford’s vice president for Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering, was quoted as saying, “For Ford, it doesn’t seem to be a solution that makes sense.” The main bone of contention with battery swap is that, in order to work, it requires automakers to settle on battery standards that are compatible with the swapping machinery.

BetterPlace, whose robotic battery switch stations “can swap out depleted EV batteries for fresh ones in two minutes,” maintains that this is will not be the case. Company spokesperson Julie Mullins claims that “From day one, accommodation of multiple battery types has been a core engineering requirement for our battery switch stations. We have made significant R&D investments to develop a toolkit/adapter in our battery switch stations that can anticipate and supply different battery types for different vehicles with different battery-to-vehicle connection mechanisms.”

After the break, I’ll explain that, even if BetterPlace were correct about the battery type disagreement, there are still several other reasons why swap stations will likely achieve only limited market penetration, and may ultimately be a very short chapter in the unfolding EV saga.

I’m in full support of any company that is giving its all to make electric cars a reality. But their business model has to make sense, and, unfortunately, for me, this one does not, except in a few limited scenarios. There are simply too many too many factors working against it.

(It should be mentioned that battery swap is only half of Better Place’s business model: the other half is deploying GE-branded charging stations. I believe that this piece of the business has a much higher probability of success. It is already a foregone conclusion that EV charging stations will be deployed en masse, it is simply a matter of which companies are in their seats when the music stops.)

The following is a list of potential reasons why battery swap may only have limited (if any) success:

    1. Rapily advancing charging technology: What sometimes gets lost, in all of the EV hype, is just how quickly battery charging tech is moving forward. You may not know this, but several manufacturers, including Nissan, report that their battery packs can be charged, from empty, to an 80% charge, in only 30 minutes, with a “fast charger” running on DC power. This is exactly the sort of charger that is likely to be installed in a public parking garage, or at an EV “filling station” (more about this in a minute). In addition, there have been recent reports of companies developing technologies that will reduce charging times to under 5 minutes!

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Once charging gets to that point, it has reached parity with battery swap, in terms of how long it takes to fill up. The only problem is that the battery swap infrastructure is much more expensive to implement.

    1. American driving habits: According to Federal government, and other, studies on transportation habits, 97.5% of Americans drive an average of less than 75 miles per day! Not only that, for 75% of us, the number of miles we drive is under 40. One full charge on a Nissan Leaf will easily cover two days of driving for most people, and one day of driving for almost everyone else.

Think about what that means for longer trips: if the Leaf can go 100 miles on a 100% charge, an 80% charge would (theoretically) be an extra 80 miles. If we subtract 10 miles as a safety buffer, that would leave us an effective range of 170 miles, with one stop to recharge. This range would allow you to drive all the way from New York City to Albany, NY (147 mi), from Boston to Hampden, CT (158 mi), from Washington, DC, to Newport News, VA (170 mi), from Portland, OR, to Tacoma, WA, or from Los Angeles, CA to Tijuana, Mexico (144 mi), with a short stop in San Diego (128 mi).

(I don’t know about you, but I don’t drive over 100 miles in one direction very often, and, if I do, I will be staying there for a few hours, if not overnight. There’s also an almost 100% chance that I would want to take a rest stop along the way, since I will have been in the car for almost 2 hours, anyhow. Since a rest stop equals a food and bio break, thirty minutes doesn’t seem like much of a change in habit, and five minutes would mean no change at all).

    1. Home is the default charging station: Think, for a minute, about how you charge your cell phone, especially if it is battery-munching a smartphone. If you are like me, you are always concerned that the battery will run out, so you take every opportunity you can to charge it. That means plugging it in at home, especially overnight, and keeping it plugged in while you are at work. It wouldn’t make sense for you to leave home with an almost-dead battery, given how important your phone is, and you plug it in at your desk at work because it is convenient.

I’m going to assert, although I don’t have the data to back it up (yet), that most people will do the same with their electric cars: they will keep it plugged in when they are at home, and they will plug it in at work, if it is convenient to do so. This means that most drivers will be starting their next trip with a “full tank.” This is fundamentally different from the ways cars are fueled now, and translates into an effective increase in daily range (assuming that drivers want to keep their trips outside the home to a minimum).

Theoretically, this should mean that most American drivers would rarely need to go to a charging station, outside of home or work. In fact, this has been borne out by anecdotal evidence from a small number of individuals who who have been driving EVs for an extended period of time.

    1. Rapidly advancing battery technology: The rapid advancement of battery technology will soon extend the range of EVs to the point of parity of gas-powered cars. This will be augmented by the greater use of lightweight materials, such as aluminum and carbon fiber. While the range increases, battery packs will also continue to get smaller and lighter, not to mention cheaper, in much the same way that they have for consumer electronics. “The size of [EV] battery packs keeps changing. It will be different in two years,” Ford’s Ms. Cischke says. Which bring us to our next point.
    2. The number of batteries that need to be held in inventory is too high, causing undue waste and cost: In order for a battery swap strategy to work, each swap facility must have enough batteries on hand to ensure that, when a customer comes in with a discharged battery, there is a matching replacement that is charged and ready to go. This means that, unless the automakers agree on some battery standards, the swap facility will need to have, on hand, approximately two of each battery type on the market. Obviously, certain battery types will require much higher multiples.

That’s going to add up to a lot of batteries.

It gets worse, when you consider the fact that battery shapes, sizes, and chemistries will constantly be changing. If you believe Ms. Cischke, Better Place could be turning over its entire battery inventory every two years! Given the coming shortages in precious metals, particularly lithium and cobalt, this is not a strategy that is going to be good for the planet, nor is it going to be more cost effective for Better Place.

However, none of this necessarily means that battery swapping, and Better Place, are doomed from the start. There is one area where battery swapping makes perfect sense: large vehicle fleets. In large fleets, there are a few standard vehicles, fixed schedules, and a desire to minimize downtimes. A battery swap setup , like Better Place’s, may always provide the fastest way to recharge a vehicle. Even if the difference is only a handful of minutes, large fleets, such as those owned by UPS or a taxi company, are big enough so that the rewards will outweigh the costs. According to FastCompany, the same may also apply to smaller countries. Therefore it is no surprise that Israel and Denmark are the only places which have committed to install battery swap stations.

To sum up, the future doesn’t look that bright for battery swap business models. Each advance in battery or charging technology is one less reason for the automakers to support battery swap. If the manufacturers don’t support it, it’s simply not going to happen (although one, very small, company is willing to give it a try).

Just think about it: your new EV comes with a 8-year battery warranty, from the manufacturer. Are you going to risk voiding that warranty, for a gain of only a few minutes?

I didn’t think so.

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What do you think? I am completely insane? Will battery swap will be the best thing since sliced bagels, or is it dead on arrival? Leave a comment and let me know!

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Steve Puma is Director of Business Development for SABA Motors, and a sustainability writer/consultant. His work focuses (mostly) on clean transportation, including Plug-In Electric Vehicles, something he is very passionate about.

Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can learn more about Steve by reading his blog, or following his tweets.

Steve Puma is a sustainable business consultant and writer.Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can learn more about Steve by reading his blog, or following his tweets.