Biden’s plan for electric cars is already outdated

The intention here is good, but these efforts could strand America behind the international curve. That’s because they ignore a burgeoning global trend in EV charging: a shift toward battery swapping. This simple, powerful mode of EV refueling uses robots to physically remove empty batteries and replace them with fully charged batteries — much as you would change the batteries in a flashlight. It’s already propelling the spread of scooters, electric rickshaws and EVs throughout China and much of the world, even as we struggle to make less efficient charging technology succeed here in America.

The concept of battery swapping was introduced 110 years ago by the Hartford Electric Light Company (a subsidiary of General Electric) to address a stubborn challenge of electric cars: long charge times. By separating an EV battery from the vehicle, the operator could slowly charge the battery, then quickly swap it in for a depleted battery — dramatically accelerating the process of EV refueling. But by the 1910s, the internal combustion engine rendered swapping obsolete. And for a century, the electric car was largely ignored.

Today, EVs are back and we have once again learned that for many drivers, plugging in and waiting isn’t a great solution. Most people don’t have a place to plug-in overnight. This includes many low-income Americans who live in apartment buildings and park on the street. And those who need to recharge quickly because they travel cross-country or drive for a living can’t spend precious hours just waiting around.

On March 31, President Biden outlined a massive $2 trillion infrastructure proposal. Here’s what’s included in the plan and how it’s funded. (Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

“Fast chargers” represent an incomplete solution at best, partly because the name is a misnomer: they still take roughly an hour to charge. This creates a cascade of practical and economic challenges. Long charge times mean that fewer people can, or will choose to, charge. In fact, recent research from the University of California at Davis shows that American EVs drive only half as many miles as gasoline-powered vehicles. At a House Transportation and Infrastructure hearing in March, the CEO of Flying J truck stops, which operates fast chargers, conceded that utilization rates are “way below 1 percent.” With installation costs ranging from $50,000 to over $300,000 and high operational costs, chargers are a much tougher business than gas stations.

But battery swapping is different. Because it’s fast, it eliminates the time penalty for charging an electric car and increases the number of customers who can use it. It doesn’t really matter how long it takes batteries to charge, because consumers don’t sit around waiting for them. And because battery swapping stations are, in essence, large energy storage devices, they can capture and store intermittent solar and wind energy. In contrast, a fast charger without battery backup will rely on the grid to dispatch electricity on demand, and roughly 60 percent of that energy still comes from natural gas and coal.

The contemporary resurgence of battery swapping began in China, where it was used to support fleets of electric bicycles — a market that boomed in the 2000s. By 2015, the Taiwanese company Gogoro had applied the concept to a zippy fleet of electric scooters. As of 2018, the Indian mobility company Ola had clocked 4 million kilometers on swap-enabled electric rickshaws.  More recently, a consortium of European micromobility companies agreed to battery swap standards for e-scooters. Europe’s largest scooter network, Voi, proclaimed that swapping means “scooters are available on streets longer and require no down time for charging, meaning smaller fleet sizes.” Not only does this translate into lower materials and manufacturing emissions, but shuttling around keyboard-sized batteries also produces far fewer emissions than shuttling around human-sized scooters.

The transformational potential of battery swap is most evident in China, which is deploying automotive battery swapping infrastructure at breakneck speed and audacious scale. China sells about three times as many EVs as America does annually and has 16 times as many fast-charging stations, having already built 309,000 fast chargers (two-thirds of the way to Biden’s EV charger goal). Yet Chinese automakers have also publicly announced plans for swap stations capable of refueling well over 10 million cars per week, and they can already support about a million vehicles. The downside of China’s EV swap stations is that they still use big robots to swap big batteries, and these sport a big price tag — an issue that helped sink the now-defunct Israeli battery-swap company Better Place. Additionally, they generally work with only one brand of electric vehicle, because the batteries are not standardized across brands.

But here in America, we are already rolling out the next generation of battery swapping infrastructure. It is smaller, cheaper and much more flexible. Uber drivers in the San Francisco Bay area are using battery-swap stations built by my company, Ample. We use swap stations that economize on cost and space. We do this by eliminating the massive battery pack found in modern EVs and replacing it with lots of smaller Lego-like batteries that can be easily stacked in various configurations. That means the system can work with virtually any electric car. Different approaches to battery swap technology are also being developed in Europe

Such fast battery-swap systems aren’t currently included in Biden’s EV plan, which focuses exclusively on fast charging. But if America plays its cards right, it can learn from EV progress in Europe, China and India — and even outpace them.