(CNN) — It can take 20 minutes to “fast charge” an electric car up to 80%. But what if you could just change the batteries like they were AAs in a toy, and be back on the road fully charged in a handful of minutes?
It seems like an obvious solution, but there have been some famous failures with battery swapping. A decade ago, Tesla announced it would build out a network of battery swapping stations that could change out Model S’s battery pack in 90 seconds. But like many of CEO Elon Musk’s publicly-announced ideas, it was later dropped with Musk claiming customers weren’t interested.
And in 2013, an Israeli company that promised battery swapping called Better Place went out of business after burning through $850 million in cash and deploying only about 1,000 cars, according to reports at the time.
But the idea has become a reality, again, at least in Asia. Chinese EV maker Nio has been offering battery swapping for its vehicles since 2019. Nio now claims to be the world’s largest operator of battery swapping technology having performed over 32 million battery swaps since then at more than 2,100 stations.
Now Stellantis, the global automaker that makes Jeep, Dodge and Fiat vehicles, is also trying out the idea on a small scale – with a crucial difference – in hopes of incorporating it in future EV models.
Stellantis is working with a company called Ample that has created a new battery swapping system it says can work in virtually any shape or size of vehicle. It says the system doesn’t require any automaker to alter its vehicle to fit a special battery pack.
With Ample’s system, the entire battery pack – which can weigh more than 1,000 pounds – doesn’t get replaced as a single unit. Instead, a number of individually sealed battery modules about the size of a desktop computer are taken out by automated machinery and replaced one by one. In this way, all the vehicle’s batteries can be quickly replaced in easily manageable chunks rather than in a single huge slab.
That means it might take five to, at most, 10 minutes to change batteries, depending on the size of the vehicle and how many modules there are, instead of the 90 seconds Musk had promised. But having separate small battery packs provides numerous advantages.
First, the equipment required to change the batteries can be small. Ample’s battery swap stations, which handle the work automatically, look like backyard sheds with an extra-thick wall. The wall is where the battery modules are stored and charged. There’s no need to dig a hole in the ground underneath the battery swapping station, either, as might be the case if the equipment needed to handle entire big, heavy battery packs.
Because the batteries don’t need high-powered DC fast charging – they have plenty of time to charge inside the hut wall – the battery swapping stations don’t require the kind of high-wattage power connections fast-charging stations do. That simplifies their installation, said Khaled Hassounah, founder and chief executive of Ample.
Also, the vehicle itself can be of any shape or size. An SUV, car or truck doesn’t need to be designed around an Ample battery pack. The battery modules fit into a container on the underside of the vehicle where a battery pack would usually go. The container is adapted to the size and shape of the vehicle. A large vehicle could simply hold more battery modules while a smaller vehicle would hold fewer of them.
Besides Stellantis, Ample is also working with heavy equipment maker Mitsubishi Fuso on a battery-swapping test with commercial trucks in Japan. In the United States, the system is being tested with a variety of different Uber vehicles around the San Francisco Bay area. Ample’s 12 battery-swapping stations in the Bay area are used “a few hundred” times a day, according to the company.
The Ample battery modules can still be charged in the vehicle at a regular EV charger, so drivers would have the option of either plugging in or swapping batteries depending on the situation. As usual, most EV owners could still plug their cars in overnight at home.
Stellantis has not said it will necessarily incorporate the system into its EV models for sale around the world. Next year, Stellantis will use the Ample battery swap system in a fleet of 100 Fiat 500e electric cars in Spain that are part of the company’s Free2Move car-sharing service.
The Fiat 500e, a tiny electric car with a range of about 150 miles, provides a perfect test case for battery swapping, said Ricardo Stamatti-Avila, Stellantis’s vice president for charging and energy.
“If you want to extend the range of a car, the answer right now is you just throw more batteries at it,” he said. “But when you have limited real estate, like in a Fiat 500, that means we’d need to make the car bigger, and then it’s not a Fiat 500 anymore, right?”
Even with larger vehicles, Ample’s battery swapping system could free drivers from having to buy lots of extra battery power they might only rarely use, as they do now. Customers could just rent the extra battery packs they need for the occasional long trip, said Stamatti-Avila.
If the system works well in Spain, he said, Stellantis will look first to commercial fleet customers to start building up an infrastructure of swapping stations. Ordinary retail customers could start using the system once there are a good number of swapping stations available.
On the other hand, if Stellantis’s Spanish experiment doesn’t pan out, this whole battery-swapping thing might just never be talked about again, as happened with Tesla.
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