Are Fast-Swap EV Batteries the Answer?

Laurance Yap
Apr 2022
Battery swap stations introduced by Nio in China promise the replacement of a battery in less than five minutes – about the same amount of time as filling your gasoline vehicle – and the process is fully automated. Are they a viable solution?
ev battery exchange station

The Future of Fast-Swap EV Batteries

Even as electric vehicle technology continues to improve exponentially, with ranges increasing and charging times decreasing, charging time continues to be an issue for many potential EV buyers. For those that frequently drive long distances, even the fastest EV chargers will take much longer to add range – 20 minutes, say, for a couple hundred miles – than filling up a conventional vehicle with gas. That, coupled with an improving but still inconsistent public charging infrastructure – with slower level 2 chargers mixed in with varying speeds of level 3 chargers – leaves some potential buyers feeling like gasoline is still more convenient, if not as environmentally-friendly.

Is there a better way? Pro photographers on big shoots will carry a spare set of batteries to swap into their cameras when needed. Similarly, contractors will have charged-up spare batteries for their high-performance power tools on building jobs. Would it be possible to apply the same principle to a car, pulling out a discharged battery and installing a new one, in the same time it took to fill a conventional vehicle with gas?

Nio, founded in 2014 in China, with a growing global presence, thinks so.

The company is not just a car brand, though they have been building vehicles for about four years now; they see themselves as a lifestyle brand, and offer a number of fashion and home products. More importantly, they have invested heavily in power delivery, offering home, commercial, and even mobile charging solutions for their customers in China. Customers without access to a charger at home can actually summon a valet that will pick up their vehicle and then find the closest and fastest solution to obtain a full charge before returning the vehicle.

EV Batteries as a Service

One of the most intriguing pieces of this “battery as a service” model is Nio’s battery swap stations – there are over 700 now in China, with the first European stations having opened in late 2021. The battery swap stations promise the replacement of a battery in less than five minutes – about the same amount of time as filling your gasoline vehicle – and the process is fully automated.

Pulling up in front of a Nio swap station, drivers (individual users or valets) can use the auto park feature which rolls the vehicle into an indoor bay; rollers automatically position the car correctly before it is lifted, and robots swap the vehicle battery, which is held in the chassis with four robust fasteners. The company’s latest-generation Power Swap 2.0 stations can hold 15 batteries, and can execute 312 swaps a day – which in theory should mean no lineups, something some EV drivers have experienced at high-demand charging stations.

The company claims it has executed over 4 million successful battery swaps in China to date, and plans on expanding the network from 700 chargers to over 4,000 globally by 2025.

Fast battery swaps also let Nio drivers easily upgrade the batteries in their vehicles – or  choose the right battery for their particular circumstances. Standard and long-range batteries (75 kWh or 100 kWh) are currently available, with an ultra-long-range battery to come in 2023. Because Nio’s business model is built around “batteries as a service,” batteries, and access to swap stations, is charged on a monthly basis. In Norway, the first European country where Nio is available, a standard-range battery costs 1,399 Krone per month (about $170 USD), and the long-range battery is 1,99 krone (about $230).

What about the cars? The EP9 track car, which set the fastest electric lap time on Germany’s legendary Nürburgring racetrack, is sadly not available to the public; Nio’s lineup is a bit more practical than that. The current lineup consists of the ES8 (a large crossover), ET7 (large sedan), ET5 (midsize sedan), ES6 and EC6 (midsize crossover, and a coupe version of the same). All models come packed with driver-assistance technologies and fully-connected touchscreen systems that can receive over-the-air updates.

Car pulling out of battery-swap station

European Launch in 2022

When you might be able to buy a Nio (and sign up for a battery plan) in the U.S. is still not clear, but the company has established a home base in San Jose as its North American headquarters, which also serves as its main research and innovation center. Positioned in the heart of Silicon Valley, it supports the design center in Munich, Germany; the advanced engineering and R&D center in Oxford, England. Nio’s global headquarters are in Shanghai, with software being coded in Beijing, electric drive systems being built in Nanjing, and production happening at Hefei.

As the development of battery technology continues to accelerate, the idea of offering them as a service instead of “built into” the structure and price of a vehicle for its entire life is an appealing one. Battery swap stations are expensive to build and require land to sit on, so they come with their own issues – it will be interesting to see if Nio’s model gets adopted more widely by other brands. Watch the GreenCars News for industry info as it develops!

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