As long as there have been electric vehicles, as long has the idea been around to swap electric car batteries. Every generation had their examples. In 1972 Mercedes showcased that with the electric bus LE 306, of which even 89 cars had been built.
Recently and most prominently, former SAP CTO Shai Agassi started a company called Better Place that tried from 2007 on to create and operate a network of battery swap stations for electric vehicles. Alas, within six years the company burned through 850 million dollars of venture capital and folded in 2013.
Even Tesla demonstrated battery swap capabilities in 2013. The battery exchange took only half the time it took an empty Audi A8 to fill up gas. Despite this demonstration Tesla hasn’t been doing much on battery swapping since.
But now the Chinese electric car maker NIO has taken up that idea and announced that they just installed 18 battery swap stations along a stretch of a 2,000 kilometer highway. NIO ES8 can now exchange their batteries on the G4 expressway, which links cities such as Shijiazhuang, Zhengzhou, Wuhan, Changsha, and Guangzhou.
The batteries in a NIO are only leased (as is the case in the Nissan Leaf), in contract to Tesla owners, who also own the batteries. All NIO owners are allowed to swap up to 12 times per year the battery. The company expects to install 1,000 swapping stations until 2020.
The ES8 has started production in summer 2018 and has since seen 3,350 sales. Even in the U.S. I have seen a vehicle in San Jose, just two blocks from the NIO subsidiary.
Battery swap system like this one pose their own challenges. Storing a sufficient number of batteries is space and capital intensive. Also drivers may not have control over the quality of the batteries they receive, which often depends on how other drivers have driven. With increasing capacity and range, and increasing charging speed, today’s reasons for battery swap may soon become obsolete.
This article has also been published in German.