By: Ryan Franks
Business Manager, Energy Storage
CSA Group

In 2014, the documentary movie Pump was released. A central premise of the documentary is that free-market fueling choice at existing gas stations including ethanol, methanol, electricity, gasoline, diesel, natural gas, and hydrogen will lead to innovation, decreased emissions, and lower operating costs by allowing adoption of the right fuel for the right job. This concept – the right fuel for the right application – is a powerful notion.

This ‘swapping’ concept has been explored within the battery industry, attracting the attention of well-known companies such as Better Place and Tesla Motors. Ultimately, Tesla did not proceed with wide-scale implementation of automotive electric vehicle swapping and Better Place went bankrupt. However, battery swapping for autonomous vehicle usage and fleet battery swapping remain interesting and alluring concepts.

While battery swapping for cars and light duty trucks may find favorable economics and market status in the future, battery swapping is currently not the right fueling solution for a number of reasons. First, there are substantial costs to implement battery swapping electrical infrastructure and the manual and/or robotic means of physically swapping the batteries. In addition, the battery is the costliest component in many electric vehicles. It is unclear how ownership is arranged, service contracts are constructed, and safety of the use of a battery with multiple past owners is assured. Finally, cars remain part art and part mechanical device. Implementing standard battery weight and shape limit how the interior and exterior of a car are designed and how the car is engineered for performance.

Yet, what if you could eliminate these significant barriers? The potential battery swapping market for some industrial equipment (e.g. forklifts, warehouse robots, and drones) as well as small personal vehicles including scooters, bicycles, motorcycles, and rickshaws or tuk-tuks, is worth considering. These types of vehicles have smaller and less costly batteries, which minimize many of the concerns around ownership, economics, and safety. The infrastructure costs for battery swapping stations are also lower than that of cars, especially because the batteries may be manually changed out by having lower weights. Finally, there is less attention on aesthetic with these types of vehicles as they have open frames. A battery could be placed anywhere on the frame, where it is both safe and easily accessible.

Battery swapping might be the right fueling choice for forklifts, bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, or rickshaws. One success story is that of Gogoro. This company operates in Taiwan, which geographically has the densest scooter adoption of anywhere in the world. In Taiwan, Gogoro has several scooter lines which use a platform of batteries and a network of 412 battery swapping stations located every 1.3 km road mile on average in Taipei. This type of subscription service is successful for several reasons including that there is no waiting time to charge a battery at the swapping station and many scooters are parked on streets and do not have charging capabilities.

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) operates the Electric Vehicle Standards Panel (EVSP) which serves as a “cross-sector coordinating body to foster on standardization matters among public and private sector stakeholders to enable the safe, mass deployment of electric vehicles and associated infrastructure in the United States.”1 This organization is vital to electric vehicle adoption by nature of it serving as a hub of information and place for the exchange of ideas among regulators, vehicle and battery manufacturers, and electro-technical device manufacturers. The primary work product of the EVSP is the Standardization Roadmap for Electric Vehicles2, which identifies gaps in standards for the electric vehicle and electric vehicle charging space. Section details battery swapping and notes the gap of “Battery swapping – safety” and “Battery swapping – interoperability” as of 2013. While standards on interoperability are difficult to come by due to various applications, broad agreement in the need for safety standards in battery swapping exists. Accordingly, IEC 69, “Electric road vehicles and electrical industrial trucks” took up project 62840 which resulted in:

  • IEC 62480-1, technical specification on the general overview of battery swap systems
  • IEC 62480-2, international standard on the safety requirements for battery swap systems

These documents detail battery swapping systems connected to the broader electrical power system and having a supply of up to 1000 V AC or 1500 V DC and may also incorporate battery swapping systems with onsite “buffer” energy storage systems. Like many standardization programs, these documents are the result of years of hard work, vigorously contested ideas, and expert advice. Any country looking to develop battery swapping markets would be wise to look to these IEC documents for guidance. After all, the idea is not to reinvent the wheel, but rather to reinvent fueling choices.