News & Analysis

EV Battery-swapping Blows a Fuse

The government’s plans to introduce battery-swapping as a solution to EV adoption has run into rough weather over standardization

At a time when security-related issues around electric vehicle charging stations are being spoken about, India’s plan to introduce battery-swapping as a means to enhance EV adoption seems to have blown a fuse. Opponents to the scheme believe that interoperability standards mooted in the government’s draft policy is a non-starter. 

Per the policy framework, the government sought to make electric vehicle charging a two-minute process whereby users swing by a charging station, pick up a replacement battery and drive away. Following opposition to this idea, reports suggest that a watered down version of the policy is under final consideration with the PMO. 

Battery swapping could be a flop show

A report published in the ET quotes unnamed sources to suggest that the policy finalization faced inordinate delays due to hectic lobbying by the EV industry to get some clauses around the interoperability struck off. The policy was first introduced by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her budget speech of 2022 with Niti Aayog releasing a draft in April. 

In a nutshell, the policy called for standardized battery dimensions and specifications across all types of electric vehicles in order to facilitate battery swapping. It was primarily meant for two and three-wheelers whereby EV users could drive in, pick up a fully charged battery and drive off after leaving the drained one at the station. 

In fact, the government seems to have stepped on the tail of a sleeping giant as standardization and interoperability should have ideally been built into the system at an early stage. A report published in EnergyWire quotes independent automotive and EV forecaster  Alan Baum as saying that mainstreaming battery-swaps is going to be a tough act. 

Swapping isn’t a new concept, just a maligned one

Battery-swapping is not a new idea and has already gained traction in China in spite of high profile failures over the last decade, including that of Tesla. More recently, a San Francisco-based startup Ample Inc. is on the verge of securing a $15 million grant in California to expand its battery-making plant and securing deals from Japan to Spain. 

The process of swapping batteries requires minimal electrical infrastructure and is proving to be a unique selling point for gasoline stations wanting to expand into servicing EVs. The company’s co-founder John de Souza says keeping things within the gas station was a thought out move and not solely reliant on the expenses to set up charging infrastructure. 

However, both de Souza and Baum have no illusions about the journey ahead as battery swapping is a radical shift away for automakers, investors and the government. Such a move could require additional investments in billions of dollars to standardize and move away from the traditional EV plug to something that fits every kind of battery – both in vehicles and outside. 

Given the size and scope of the change that would require massive investments, says Baum while also acknowledging that focusing on even the smaller corners of this shift could present a large enough opportunity for change and enhance the uptake of EVs. One of the key requirements for such swapping relates to higher safety. 

India’s policy takes note, but will EV makers buy in?

In fact, India’s draft policy around swapping outlined safety requirements ranging from each battery having a unique identification tag as well as timeframes for their refurbishment as well as recycling. All of these were wrapped into a possible subsidy mechanism that would make usage cheaper for drivers of battery-operated two-wheelers and three-wheelers. 

From the point of view of vehicle makers, the challenge that they brought forth was the need for overhauling the entire infrastructure as well as the production-ready prototypes in order to adhere to the interoperability standards prescribed in the policy note. They cited technical feasibility as a key challenge. 

For example, they noted that standardized batteries would require unit dimensions to be designed in such a fashion that it fits all body types and also comes with the same software and hardware. The logic that the EV makers bounced off the government suggested that introduction of standardization would curb innovation. 

Of course, experts we spoke to had a slightly different point of view. They felt that standardization could result in commoditization, which virtually means that companies cannot offer USPs to customers when it comes to battery life, durability and other such value propositions that brands offer to push their product. 

Which is where probably a company like Ample Inc. can step in. The earlier approach from Tesla and Chinese companies was to replace the whole battery whereas now Ample has come out with smaller modular batteries that could either restore the whole battery or just a section of it, depending on the range a vehicle needs. 

The replacement process is automated whereby an EV parks at an Ample station where the spent battery modules are removed and replaced with charged ones. These empties are then shuttled across to charging stations for a refill. The company believes this system simplifies the process and can be cheaper to install and faster to utilize. 

It remains to be seen whether Indian companies can follow suit and create options that would result in standardization. Such a move could result in faster adoption, failing which EV makers will need to spend more research dollars to get more mileage from a single charge. 

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