Battery swapping has long been one of those holy grail solutions to the problem of range anxiety in electric vehicles. It has been tested many times over the last 15 years and while the technology is certainly workable, in most use cases, it is difficult to make the economics work. But Stellantis is set to give it another go in partnership with California-based startup Ample for a fleet of shared Fiat 500s.
Until Ample, previous attempts at battery swapping starting with Better Place in the late 2000s, Tesla in the mid-2010s, and the more recent Chinese automaker Nio all relied on swapping out the entire battery pack with an automated mechanism. Conceptually, all three of these efforts were basically the same. Drive a car to an exchange station where an automatic jack driver system climbs up from underneath and unscrews the battery from the car. A platform lowers the spent pack and shuffles it from the side into a charging rack, and a charged pack is placed back into the vehicle. The process can be performed in minutes and the vehicle can be on its way.
As noted in Edward Niedermeyer’s Tesla book, Ludicrous, the Tesla effort only ever had one exchange station, and it appears to have been done primarily to collect additional zero-emission vehicle credits from the state of California that could then be sold. Only one exchange station ever opened in the Central Valley of California and it closed after 1 year having done very few actual exchanges.
Better Place and Nio did try, and Nio has over 2,000 exchange stations, mostly in China, and has exchanged over 30 million batteries since Better Place went bankrupt in 2013. These full-package exchange systems tend to be proprietary because each manufacturer and most vehicle models have unique package formats that are not interchangeable. If there are no standardized packages, a third-party exchange system would have many kinds of batteries and would simply not be workable.
The Ample solution scales down the exchange problem from the full package to just the unit. Ample has developed a standard battery pack that is a subset of the pack. The idea is to then develop a replacement package housing that can fit each individual vehicle model, but which houses the standard unit. When the vehicle enters the exchange stations, individual modules are replaced while the package housing remains in place in the vehicle.
The downside to this is that standard rectangular units may not completely fill the volume pack in the vehicle, leaving some empty space and reducing the pack’s maximum capacity. However, for many applications this should not be a problem. Commercial delivery vehicles, transport vehicles and car sharing services generally do not require extremely long distances as they operate in local urban areas for the most part.
One of Ample’s first major pilots was a fleet of Nissan Leafs used for a shuttle service in San Francisco. Other partnerships include one for medium-duty commercial trucks with Mitsubishi Fuso.
The partnership between Stellantis and Ample will begin in Madrid, Spain in 2024, where a fleet of 100 Fiat 500s used in the Free2Move car-sharing service will be modified with Ample-compatible battery packs. Since Ample exchange stations only have to handle smaller units instead of a full package that can weigh over 1,000 pounds, the stations are smaller and can be deployed in as little as three days.
Stellantis is not announcing any other specific plans at this time, but has said it will evaluate the use of Ample’s system for fleets and consumer vehicles in the future. Beyond car sharing, vehicles like the electric Ram ProMaster/Fiat Ducato and the smaller Fiat Doblo would all be possible candidates for the Ample unit swap. They typically operate in local areas and can be swapped out for freshly charged units in less than five minutes, minimizing downtime.
In Europe where driving distances tend to be shorter, the Ample system could be a viable alternative for some customers. In North America, it’s more likely to be limited to various fleet applications, unless Ample swap stations become truly ubiquitous. One of the major advantages of this solution is that it does not have the huge power requirements of large-scale DC fast charging stations, and the battery modules can be charged more slowly for better durability. Exchange stations could also serve as network storage buffers or backup power systems for businesses.
At this relatively early stage of the EV transition, how we ultimately replenish the energy in our vehicles is far from certain. Different types of charging will certainly play a role, but may not be the only solution, especially for certain use cases.