Battery Swapping Supports U.S. Electrification Goals

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Thanks to new developments and battery swapping, electric-vehicle charging could be completed in a matter of minutes rather than hours. This is Ample’s undertaking, a startup company from California and an Uber partner. The company’s approach involves the use of quick, autonomous battery-swapping stations. In this interview with EE Times, John de Souza, co-founder and president of Ample, discusses the latest advances in swapping technology for the next wave of electrification.

The lithium batteries in EVs still take a certain amount of time to recharge, depending on the capacity of the battery or the charging infrastructure available, or whether batteries are charged in AC or DC. For quicker recharging, there is the possibility of replacing the battery on the fly, an operation that takes much less time, but to perform this “battery swapping” operation, the battery housing on the car must be designed in a special way.

Following a seven-year period of secrecy, Ample made its public debut in 2021, and since then, it has expanded throughout the Bay Area and collaborated closely with fleet partners like Uber and Sally to thoroughly test its technology with actual drivers. This has allowed Ample to better understand fleets’ needs and the effects of battery swapping on their business operations.

Ample’s John de Souza.
Ample’s John de Souza

Battery swapping

The goal is to have an impact on the overall decarbonization and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. And the natural starting point was transportation, which is one of the main causes of such emissions. There is a huge transformation going on, and today’s biggest challenge is to recharge the battery in the shortest time. Powering high energy into the grid requires a rethink of how energy is distributed in the grid.

In San Francisco today, an Uber driver using a completely electric vehicle with Ample batteries traveled 120 miles around the Bay, picking up and dropping off passengers before pausing for a brief period to replace the vehicle’s exhausted batteries with fully charged ones. When a car approaches the Ample station, the station detects it and opens its entrance for it. The driver starts the transfer from the Ample app on their phone after everything is correctly positioned inside. The motorist gets back on the road and resumes their workday five minutes later.

Ample’s approach to fast charging of EVs involves the use of quick, autonomous battery-swapping stations.
Ample’s approach to fast charging of EVs involves the use of quick, autonomous battery-swapping stations.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) awarded Ample a roughly $15 million grant to produce the next generation of EV batteries in the United States. This funding is a show of support for EV battery swapping and emphasizes how crucial it will remain for the U.S. EV ecosystem in the years and decades to come.

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio: Congratulations on receiving the $15 million grant from the CEC. How do you plan to utilize this grant to manufacture America’s next generation of electric-vehicle batteries, and what specific advancements or milestones do you aim to achieve with this funding?

John de Souza: Thanks, Maurizio. This grant represents a vote of confidence in EV battery swapping and underscores its continued importance for the U.S. EV ecosystem in the years and decades to come.

Specific to Ample, the grant will support the expansion and operation of our first automated battery-production facility in Brisbane, California, where we’ll produce swappable battery packs for more than 14,000 vehicles each year. The CEC grant will also allow us to scale up the production of modular batteries to better serve the needs of our current partners like Uber and expand the reach of battery swapping to new partners and communities.

Di Paolo Emilio: The grant highlights the importance of battery swapping for the U.S. EV ecosystem. Can you explain how battery swapping is different from traditional charging methods and what advantages it offers for high-utilization vehicles and communities without reliable access to overnight charging?

De Souza: The importance of battery swapping stems from its ability to separate the charging of batteries from putting energy in the car. With charging, the two are tied, so the car must wait until the charging is complete. This means that vehicle utilization drops, and so faster charges are needed. However, the faster the charger, the more costly, the longer it takes to build, the more energy is lost as heat and the greater the impact on the battery. In addition, charging speed drops as the battery is charged, so they are usually charged to 80%, meaning that the customer is paying for 20% of the battery they are not using.

With battery swapping, the batteries can be slowly charged to 100% and transferred very quickly into the vehicle regardless of capacity. Delivering 50 kWh in five minutes is equivalent to a 600-kW charger without all the energy loss of the charger. In addition, the vehicle’s life is extended beyond the battery’s. The main issue with battery swapping was the need for battery standardization.

With Ample’s modular battery swapping, the benefits are extended beyond these while addressing all the concerns of traditional pack-level battery swapping. Ample allows vehicles to be battery-swappable without requiring any changes from the OEM. This enables battery swapping to have the same convenience as gas. In addition, newer battery technologies can be introduced to increase capacity over time. The stations do not require any construction and can be deployed quickly and cost-effectively. Ample also allows the driver to choose the size of the battery installed at each swap, allowing for the optimization of the efficiency of the vehicle.

Di Paolo Emilio: The Biden administration recently announced plans to install 500,000 EV charging stations across America. How do you view the coexistence of traditional charging infrastructure and battery-swapping solutions in supporting the electrification goals for the United States?

De Souza: We welcome all advancements to give more EV owners reliable charging options and to inspire non-EV owners to make the switch. In our eyes, every contribution to make EVs more accessible is a win. However, the problem with more chargers is that the number of chargers is only part of the problem. This does not address:

  • Time wasted charging
  • Ability of the grid to support power needed by fast chargers
  • Degradation of the battery
  • Limited longevity and residual value of the vehicle due to the battery
  • Difficulty in using batteries in a second life

Battery swapping addresses all of these issues.

At the end of the day, we’re proud to support the Biden administration’s goals for EV manufacturing and deployment. In fact, as our batteries are produced domestically at our facility in Brisbane, California, we’re eligible for production incentives included in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Di Paolo Emilio: The description of your battery-swapping system highlights its simplicity and efficiency. Can you provide more details on how the Ample stations recognize the approaching vehicle and facilitate the automated battery-swapping process?

De Souza: We have a fully autonomous system that swaps depleted batteries with fully charged ones. The approaching vehicle communicates using secure wireless with the swapping station. The vehicle is then identified, and the station has all the data needed to swap it. The driver is then guided into the station, and then, using a combination of computer vision and alignment features, the Ample station can identify the exact location of each battery module to be swapped. Once discharged, battery modules are removed from the car and they are placed on shelves to be charged, ready for the next vehicle and eventually swapped again. Drivers initiate the swapping process from the Ample mobile app.

Di Paolo Emilio: As you scale up deployments and expand into different cities, what are the key factors and considerations for successful implementation of the battery-swapping infrastructure? How do you plan to collaborate with carmakers, fleets and cities to accelerate the electrification process?

De Souza: Let’s start by looking at the design of our new stations. Our stations are now even faster to deploy, needing only three days to install, allowing us to bring up a whole metropolitan area in a few weeks. We deliver the station in a few pre-built sections to where a station will go up, which are put together on-site, further simplifying the installation. And like our first-generation technology, deploying a station requires no digging. To support different demand levels at different locations, stations can be easily stacked, so multiple vehicles can swap simultaneously at the same location.

We’re committed to collaborating with cities and neighborhoods to ensure that we’re serving their needs and that our stations match the community in question—both aesthetically and culturally.

We are already collaborating with the top OEMs on their mission to electrify. We work with these OEMs at the manufacturing stage to offer Ample’s adapter plate that fits into the same space as the original battery. The modular batteries are then swapped in and out at the swapping station and fit onto the adapter plate, and OEMs do not need to change the design of their vehicles.

Di Paolo Emilio: The robustness of the stations and their ability to withstand extreme temperatures and weather conditions is mentioned. What specific measures have been taken to ensure the durability and reliability of the stations in different climates?

De Souza: The stations have roll-up doors that can be closed to deal with extreme weather. In addition, the batteries are not fast-charged, thereby limiting temperature increase while charging. The batteries can also be cooled or heated as necessary before being put in a vehicle.

Di Paolo Emilio: Looking ahead, what are some of the key perspectives, challenges and future directions for the widespread adoption of battery swapping in the U.S.? How do you see Ample playing a role in overcoming these challenges and shaping the future of electric mobility?

De Souza: There are 275 million cars to electrify in the U.S. alone, which will demand an all-hands-on-deck approach to charging technology and infrastructure. Plug-in charging works great for EV owners with private garages, while battery swapping is a more efficient and economical solution for fleet vehicles that need to get back on the road quickly or for city dwellers who don’t have dedicated garages. It’s important to diversify charging options to make EVs accessible for everyone, and battery swapping will be the option that most closely resembles getting gas.

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