Interchangeable batteries for electric vans and trucks make sense

Odon’t most successful battery swap systems for electric vehicles (evs) is operated by Gogoro, a Taiwanese company. It has some 500,000 subscribers who, for a monthly fee, can quickly swap out the depleted batteries of their electric mopeds and scooters for fully charged batteries at a network of kiosks across the country. What makes Gogoro’s system so popular is that it uses a standardized battery that fits machines produced by different manufacturers.

Japanese giant automakers are now planning to do something similar with delivery vans and light trucks. A consortium of Daihatsu, Isuzu, Hino, Suzuki and Toyota is exploring the use of easily detachable “cartridge” batteries to power such vehicles. These cartridges would be smaller than the fixed batteries of the evs (although several could be grouped together to provide more range) and would be standardized to fit any vehicle suitable for the system. When empty, they can be quickly removed and replaced with fully charged models at automated exchange stations. Yamato Transport, a large Japanese delivery service, is working with the consortium on ways to set up a network of such stations.

Swapping out batteries like this would be a useful way to power commercial devices evs that are constantly on the road and therefore require frequent recharging. Conventional fast charging, of the type a private motorist might use at a petrol station, is only meant for occasional use because doing so repeatedly strains a battery, shortening its lifespan. Exchanged battery cassettes, on the other hand, can be recharged slowly and efficiently, but without preventing the vehicle from rolling. The consortium thinks battery swapping could also help reduce peak electricity demand at businesses, eliminating end-of-shift surges when many vehicles return to base and plug in simultaneously.

The consortium will also have to decide whether to sell the cartridge batteries directly and let the transport companies do their own exchange, or rent them and rely on third-party exchange stations. If they come up with a workable system, it could encourage producers of commercial products evs in other countries to try something similar. But there are plenty of bumps in the road before all of that happens.

On the one hand, it is not only a common specification for the battery that must be agreed, but also the means by which it is attached and removed. This affects the way companies design their vehicles, making the deal harder to come by. Currently, there is little standardization in the ev Company. Batteries come in many shapes and sizes, and chargers work with some vehicles but not others. Many batteries are also difficult to remove. Increasingly, in fact, they are integrated into vehicles as part of the structure. Manufacturers who once thought batteries would become commoditized are now developing their own, employing them to deliver market benefits such as longer range, faster acceleration and faster charging.

The success of a battery exchange program would therefore depend on how its cost relative to battery charging on the spot– although both options are likely to be available on any given utility vehicle. For passenger cars, where battery leasing has not been popular, success is less likely.

There are battery swap systems for cars. Nio, a Chinese automaker, offers exchange stations in its home market, where many people live in apartments and therefore lack access to home charging. But most manufacturers are looking at better batteries and improved charging infrastructure.

Tesla, the largest in America ev producer, considered swapping batteries but abandoned the idea in favor of developing its own network of Superchargers. And charging times on most networks are decreasing, with some high-voltage systems able to recharge batteries from 20% to 80% in less than 20 minutes. This still doesn’t fix the battery charging problem. But future batteries, especially the solid-state variety some companies are developing, promise to be smaller and capable of longer range, so they’ll need to be charged less often. Most drivers of private electric cars will therefore always have to keep their charging cables close at hand.

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