- Ample opened its first electric vehicle battery swap stations — in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- Uber drivers with electric vehicles are Ample's first customers.
- CNBC got a first look at the stations, and how the company replaces spent battery modules with fully charged batteries in less than 10 minutes.
A San Francisco start-up called Ample wants to make electric vehicle battery swapping work in the United States following a history of failure by others in the space.
When electric vehicles started gaining ground in the early 2010s, Tesla and a start-up called Better Space promised their customers would have the convenient option of battery swapping.
"Hopefully this is what convinces people finally that electric cars are the future," Musk said, rallying a crowd at a splashy demo in 2013, before sending them off to enjoy a party. Musk also said then that the battery of a Tesla Model S could be swapped in about 90 seconds.
But both companies failed to make swapping commercially viable. Better Place shut down in May 2013 despite having raised $850 million in venture funding. In June 2015, Musk claimed customers weren't interested in swapping their batteries.
At the same time, electric vehicle companies improved their battery and charging station technology. This enabled their cars to drive more miles on a single charge. Owners could also spend less time plugged in at charging stations when they weren't replenishing their batteries overnight at home or hotels.
However, Ample thinks the time is right to try again.
Ample now operates five battery swap stations in the San Francisco Bay Area specifically for Uber drivers. Participating drivers with supported electric vehicles can exchange a spent battery for a fully charged one in less than 10 minutes. At launch, Ample supports the Nissan Leaf — which is the main electric vehicle used by Uber drivers — and some Kia electric vehicles. It does not support Teslas, however, along with other popular EV models. Right now, the stations have a maximum capacity of 90 cars per day.
Eventually, Ample hopes to make swapping an option for all EVs.
Even though EV batteries have improved over the past decade, Ample believes swapping will be popular among fleet managers, delivery, service and ride-hail drivers. They log hundreds of miles a day and don't want to put wear and tear on their batteries by rapid charging them every shift, Ample founder and CEO Khaled Hassounah said.
Hassounah added that his company's approach is technically distinct from prior efforts.
The company spent about seven years developing robotics that can remove spent battery modules from a car's battery pack and replace them with fully energized modules in less than 10 minutes. Ample can replace a few modules in a pack or all of them, depending on how much of the battery was drained and how far it needs to go before returning home for an overnight recharge. Companies trying battery swaps in the past exchanged the entire pack, not individual modules within them.
Drivers can sit in the car or get out and stretch their legs while the swap is completed. The company is pushing to get the time for a swap to less than five minutes this year.
Ample battery swap stations are designed to be installed quickly along a route. They are prefabricated and assembled wherever they're wanted, but do not require complex construction or permitting. They take up the space of only about two parking spots.
Like most companies in the emerging field, Ample is looking to reduce the environmental impact of energy generation for the onslaught of electric vehicles in the U.S. and abroad.
"With a kind of continuous update of the battery, a car that is 10 years old can drive about as far as the newest model being released this year," Ample President and co-founder John de Souza said.
Hassounah also noted that "electric should not be a tough decision. ... But it has to be cheaper and simpler, because we're not competing with gas yet."
By removing and charging drained batteries at off-peak hours, or using electricity from renewable energy sources to charge them up before a swap, Ample can help fleets hit environmental goals and spend less on electricity.
The co-founders also said swapping should enable used electric vehicles to stay on the road, performing perfectly for longer, rather than turning into e-waste.
The company has raised $68 million in venture funding, led by Shell Ventures and joined by Repsol Energy Ventures and Eneos Innovation Partners. These energy businesses are facing disruption as governments push for wider adoption of electric vehicles. Transportation and mobility investors Moore Strategic Investors and Hemi Ventures also invested in Ample.
Long-time electric vehicle researcher and automotive writer John Voelcker says any battery swapping effort in North America will face warranted skepticism.
"Battery swapping has massive challenges in terms of capital requirements," he said. "Just like bike-sharing, it's not evenly distributed. It might make sense to have stations along a particular route, but demand can spike around travel, like at Thanksgiving time. They will have to move heavy batteries from place to place to make this work."
Scott Case, CEO of a Seattle start-up that measures electric vehicle battery health called Recurrent, said it's "definitely a pro that you might be able to upgrade your battery over time without paying for an entirely new one.
"But there are some risks that are kind of low tech if you're going to be taking batteries out of your vehicle over and over again, like dealing with dirt and grime from the road that can get introduced into your system."
Ample says it has designed around this, in part by including a battery monitoring system on each swappable module that can alert a driver if there's an issue, and can disable just the impacted module until the car can come in for a swap.
Hassounah and de Souza know they are facing doubters. But he said: "We're making a major transition, a third of human consumption of energy is moving from one form to another. And any time we make that kind of change, we have to step back and rethink things." For Ample, that means, revisiting a good idea that didn't work out, but possibly should have.
The company is not alone. Nio, a high-tech EV maker, succeeded in launching a battery swapping service for its customers in China. Shares of Nio are on a tear, surging more than 1,000% over the past 12 months.