Can battery swapping for electric vehicles beat out real-time charging? This business concept has already led to one high-profile flop, but Ample is gearing up to make it work.
SAN FRANCISCO : Ample, a well-funded startup that’s building battery-swapping infrastructure for electric vehicles, demonstrated a fully functional prototype swap station last week to a small group of investors, corporate partners and press. The demonstration has been eight years in the making.
Ample co-founder and CEO Khaled Hassounah told the assembled group that the company wants the user experience of the battery-swap session to be like filling up a gas-powered car (minus the fumes). Instead of waiting around to charge an EV battery — which can take up to an hour even with a fast charger — a driver can get in and out of Ample’s new swapping bay in five minutes with a new battery and a full charge.
During those five minutes, the vehicle is precisely guided into the bay and elevated on a platform. A robot beneath the vehicle removes a battery module from the car and transports it to a charging area. The robot then selects, transports and installs a charged module in its place.
The company is aiming to help solve a big challenge facing the U.S. and the world as the EV revolution hurtles forward: How will we charge all those EVs’ batteries? Ample’s answer: swap instead of doing real-time charging.
Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before
Does this all sound familiar? Shai Agassi’s heavily hyped startup Better Place went bankrupt in 2013 after raising $850 million from investors for EV battery swapping — a legendary flameout that contributed to the bursting of the Cleantech 1.0 bubble a decade ago.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk also hyped battery swapping for a brief moment in 2014, but he soon dispensed with the idea and refocused on building out the company’s EV charger network.
Despite those ominous signs, Hassounah and John de Souza co-founded Ample in 2014, intent on getting modular EV-battery swapping right.
They heard a common refrain after launching their company: “You guys are crazy.” Said DeSouza, “When people tell you you’re crazy, it’s one of two things: We could be doing something very ambitious — or we could actually be crazy.”
The sanity of Ample’s founders might still be up for debate, but if they’re crazy, they have good company.
Ample has raised a total of $290 million in funding over five rounds from investors including Blackstone, Eneos, Momentum Venture Capital (the corporate venture arm of Singapore’s public transport operator), Moore Strategic Ventures, PTT (Thailand’s state-owned gas and oil company), Spanish energy company Repsol, Clayton Christensen’s Rose Park Advisors, Santander and Shell Ventures.
And now for something completely partly different
Don’t expect to be able to drive your Tesla or Chevy Bolt into an Ample swapping station anytime soon. For now, the company is focused on a narrower market, aiming to avoid the kinds of mistakes that brought Better Place down.
Ample will initially target vehicle-fleet owners and commercial operators such as Uber drivers, and its system is designed to work only with specific models whose manufacturers have partnered with the startup.
Unlike earlier efforts, Ample is not removing the entire battery pack from the vehicle, a component that can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and contains structural and safety elements. Instead, Ample is removing just the active battery modules, a much lighter load that doesn’t require massive robots.
The entire swap station is designed to be manufactured at Ample’s factory and then transported by container to the site. The company claims that it can deploy a station in three days compared to the months it might take to install a fast charger.
Can you spare $50 trillion for a grid upgrade?
Ample’s system, if it works as envisioned, wouldn’t just be more convenient for drivers and fleet owners. It also has the potential to cut public costs for building out EV-charging infrastructure, get battery-charging systems in place more quickly, and lower associated carbon emissions.
While both mandates and incentives are driving up EV sales in the U.S., charging infrastructure is not keeping pace — and that’s setting the stage for a market pinch point and a disincentive for would-be EV buyers. As Suncheth Bhat, chief business officer of startup EV Realty, recently told Canary Media, “The grid was never designed to be the fuel source for transportation.”
It’s difficult to put a precise number on the investment that will be required to equip us for an EV-charged future — but that hasn’t stopped folks from giving it a shot.
“There’s $50 trillion missing [in grid investment] if everybody wants a fast charger,” according to Ali Vezvaei, chair of the management board at EV maker e.GO, who spoke at the Ample demo.
California alone is facing a bill of up to $50 billion by 2035 to get its distribution grids ready to handle the massive growth in electricity demand that EVs will create — and that doesn’t even include installing the chargers.
A 2021 study from Atlas Public Policy forecast the need for $87 billion in charging-infrastructure investments in the U.S. by 2030, including $39 billion for 495,000 public and workplace chargers. A 2019 report from Boston Consulting Group estimated that for each new EV added to its territory through 2030, a utility would need to spend an average of $1,700 to $5,800 on grid upgrades to enable charging. If that charging infrastructure isn’t in place, utilities could be forced to limit the number of new EVs getting plugged in — a crucial delay to progress on electrifying transportation.
In Ample’s vision, widely deployed battery-swapping stations could ease the pain of charger scarcity and trim these inflated cost estimates.
Because Ample plans to strategically time the charging of batteries, it won’t put as much stress on the grid as fast chargers would. That means it could install swapping stations in cities where electrical infrastructure is not ready for the enormous and immediate power needs that conventional EV charging requires.
Ample could also optimize its battery-charging times to coincide with periods when solar and wind are in plentiful supply.
Battery-swapping stations, despite the failure of previous attempts, still have the potential to open up charging and EV ownership to a much larger population — without the immense cost of reinventing the electrical grid. Will Ample be able to make this vision a reality by successfully partnering with like-minded automakers and municipalities while dialing in a profitable charging-as-as-service model? The startup is banking on the past not being prologue.