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Drive up to the next window for a new battery, please!

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Drive up to the next window for a new battery, please!

Anyone who has an e-car knows that if you run out of juice, you drive to a charging station. The problem: apart from fast chargers, it takes a comparatively long time. A US company is now planning to show an alternative: it wants to swap full batteries for empty ones. The idea isn’t new, but San Francisco start-up Ample believes it can score with a new approach.

Ample’s battery swapping system is one of a number of companies that have and had similar ideas. Battery swapping is designed to offer the convenience and speed of visiting a gas station, which proponents say could help extend the range of electric cars and thus increase their acceptance. However, critics are skeptical and regard battery swapping stations as a (too) expensive solution that will at best serve a niche in electric mobility.

The new exchange stations from Ample are a visual eye-catcher: they look like car washes in Silicon Valley design, in bright white and with rounded corners. “Our whole vision is that we want to offer an experience that’s as fast, affordable and convenient as filling up with gas,” says Hamid Schricker, Product Director at Ample.

A traffic light station has the footprint of approximately two car parking spaces and provides some form of drive-through service. As soon as a vehicle is ready for exchange, the driver drives to the station. A gate slides up to reveal a platform inside. You then drive up onto this – guided by light signals a bit like in a car wash. Then you press a button in the Ample app and the actual battery change begins.

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The station’s platform lifts the vehicle and its occupants a few meters, and then the integrated mechanics get to work, removing the used battery modules from the vehicle and inserting new ones. When the swap is complete, the platform lowers the vehicle back onto the road and the driver can drive off again with fresh batteries.

The discharged batteries are charged in the station itself over a period of several hours and can then later be used in another vehicle. Charge extra slowly to extend battery life, says John de Souza, co-founder and president of Ample. However, the number of possible exchange processes is limited by the existing power grid. A station with a 100-kilowatt connection can charge and replace 48 batteries, each with a capacity of 50 kilowatt-hours, in the course of a day.

Ample has already installed a dozen of its first generation exchange stations in the San Francisco area. Together, they perform a few hundred exchanges each day, each lasting about 10 minutes, says de Souza. The start-up is working with the travel agency Uber to demonstrate that battery replacement can also be helpful for demanding applications such as rental cars. However, the ultimate vision is to provide ordinary commuters or travelers with the system – as a kind of “drop-in” solution instead of the usual charging.

However, the construction of the exchange stations is more expensive than the construction of fast charging stations. Ample itself has not yet provided any precise information on this. However, one is under the currently known prices of the competitors and models, where up to half a million dollars per system came together.

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Ample is far from the first company to address the issue of quick battery swaps. Even Tesla once explored the concept, demonstrating the technology in its Model S in 2013 before eventually abandoning the plan in favor of its network of superchargers. Better Place was probably the best-known company in the field of battery replacement technology. The company, founded in 2007, worked together with the car manufacturer Renault and built up a network of several dozen exchange stations in Israel. Despite the fact that Better Place had raised around 850 million US dollars, the company did not manage to get enough motorists – and especially car manufacturers – on board. Bankruptcy took place in 2013.

The nightmare Better Place hovers over all efforts in the field of quick battery replacement in e-cars. But de Souza says Ample’s approach addresses all of the problems that have derailed previous attempts at the technology. For a company like Better Place or Ample to be successful, they must first find a way to be compatible with the vehicles that are on the road. And that is precisely the key challenge: companies are increasingly opting for different battery designs and chemistries for different models. And an exchange outside of the maintenance is not planned.

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