On Wednesday morning in San Francisco, a startup called Ample launched its new battery-swapping technology for electric vehicles. The company has designed an extremely small footprint for its interchange stations, which only take up as much land as a couple of standard parking spaces and don’t need a lot of electrical infrastructure. So instead of building a large location capable of handling hundreds of cars a day, Ample’s plan is to build numerous small stations, which can be quickly deployed. The first five of these are already operational in the Bay Area, serving a fleet of Uber EVs equipped with Ample’s modular battery system.
Faster than fast charging
Rightly or wrongly, charging times and charging infrastructure are probably the biggest obstacles to the widespread adoption of electric vehicles. Since the creation of the first gas station in 1905, society has become accustomed to quickly refueling with liquid hydrocarbons. As a result, no one cares if their V12-powered grand tourer can’t go the 200 miles before coming to a stop, knowing they’ll only be parked for a few minutes.
Battery electric vehicles, on the other hand, need to be sold with as much battery as possible under the cab, and even the fastest-charging BEVs currently on sale still take more than 20 minutes to charge to 80 percent, and even then only with 350 kW fast chargers which are still relatively rare.
The idea of slowly charging electric vehicle batteries and then quickly swapping spent packs for new ones isn’t exactly new. In 2007 Better Place tried to make the idea work, but electric vehicles were too much in their infancy and Israel was too small a market for that to happen. Tesla tested it too, with a single experimental station midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco that began testing in 2013. A package was supposed to be exchanged in 90 seconds, but in practice it took up to 15 minutes, and the team did. made irrelevant. success of the Supercharger network. And in China, Nio has 131 battery exchange stations that completed more than half a million battery exchanges in August last year.
“The moment you break the battery down into smaller modular pieces, a lot of things become easier,” said Khaled Hassounah, one of Ample’s co-founders. “One of them is that the station becomes much simpler. So our station doesn’t really need construction, or digging in the ground. All we need is a couple of parking spots that are flat enough, and then in a few days, usually a week —We can get a station up and running. Literally everything is shipped flat-packed, we assemble it on site, test it, turn it on, and have the exchange station. And that’s why we can serving the entire Bay Area, for example, with multiple stations in a matter of a few weeks, ”he told me this morning.
Each station charges some batteries at a constant rate, so there is no need for the huge power demands (or demand fees) that DC fast charging stations require. And since there is no permanent structure, the new stations should not be held up for bureaucratic red tape and permits, again, unlike DC fast charging stations.
By now, many of you are probably thinking the same thing I thought when I first heard about the idea: wouldn’t this require a significant reengineering of an electric vehicle?
“That’s a logical conclusion, or prediction, of how it would work. But we seek to change that in two fundamental ways,” Hassounah explained. “One of them is that because our batteries are modular, we don’t really have a format that we need automakers to adapt to or that has to fit into all available systems. Instead, we built what we call a Ample blade adapter. “
Ample obtains the specifications for a battery pack from an OEM, then designs a structural framework for the pack that can accept your modules while still meeting the same engineering requirements as the OEM pack. “It has the same shape, the same screws, the same connector as the original battery,” Hassounah said. Since the modules are already developed, Ample only has to develop a new adapter plate for each new EV model it supports.
But since the modules are always identical, that means that the stations can service different brands of EVs and simplifies the exchange process. “Usually you have the high current connector, you have the large bolts that hold most of the weight and everything you need to remove. In our case, we are just removing modules in protective cubes, but the large structural piece that connects to cooling and high power and all that always stays in the car, ”he told me.
“The second thing we had to build is the [cell] The chemistry changes slightly between vehicles, and Ample’s first two years focused exclusively on that problem before we even built robots. We build a layer of power electronics in our battery modules; the key is that it is flexible enough but cheap enough that it doesn’t change battery economics significantly. That allows the battery to now adapt to the vehicle but also abstract the chemistry, “he explained.
Every new type of EV requires a bit of software work for the Ample battery to communicate with the car, but Hassounah told me there are a lot of similarities, despite what OEMs may say. “When you talk about the communication between the battery and the car, it is very basic. There are five things that all communicate: voltage, current, temperature maximum power and maximum regeneration. And of course, the sequence to turn on and on OEMs to work with you, it just takes a couple of weeks to update our software, “he said.
What if I get someone else’s degraded battery?
One often heard concern about battery changes (usually in the context of Tesla’s failed experiment) was someone else’s battery issue. Nobody wants to show up at a swap station to swap their new, 100 percent charged battery for someone else’s pack that only goes up to 80 percent. The Ample model is more like the propane tanks that you could use with a grill – it owns the modules, which it rents out to customers. That way, you will never keep someone else’s lemon.
“That actually lowers the cost for everyone because it allows us to spread the risk and say that Ample makes sure to maintain quality, but it also spreads the risk so that no one ends up with a $ 20,000 bill,” Hassounah said.
There is also the tantalizing possibility that vehicles will gain more range over time, beyond the improvements that are possible with software updates. This is because Ample can update the chemistry or design of its modules and deploy them on vehicles that are already on the road. Furthermore, modularity means that end users can have some flexibility with the number of kilowatt-hours and therefore the amount of additional mass they need for a given trip. Range anxiety, whether it exists or not, means that most people want an electric vehicle with the largest possible battery and the longest theoretical range, even if they only take a road trip once a year.
“So you spend a lot of your energy moving the battery, even if you don’t need it. With modularization, you can choose how many modules you’re going to put in the car,” said John de Souza, another at Ample. co-founder. Rather than buying a car with 300 miles of lithium-ion on board, a customer can choose to carry around half of the modules for daily driving and then add additional modules as needed.
For now, those customers will be fleets, not individual drivers. Here in the US, Ample is working with Uber, which is leasing a fleet of Ample-equipped electric vehicles to Uber drivers in the Bay Area. And Hassounah and de Souza told me there are pilot implementations in the works for Europe and Japan.
Image listing by Ample