Inside the Chinese electric motor for interchangeable car batteries

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DETROIT/BEIJING, March 25 (Reuters) – A year ago, Tesla dismissed the alternative route of swapping electric car batteries as “fraught with problems and not suitable for large-scale use”. It seems that Beijing disagrees.

In fact, China is pushing for interchangeable batteries for electric vehicles (EVs) to complement regular vehicle charging, with the government backing several companies advancing the technology.

Four companies – automakers Nio and Geely, battery swapping developer Aulton and state oil producer Sinopec (600028.SS) – say they plan to establish a total of 24,000 swapping stations across the country. countries by 2025, up from around 1,400 today.

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Battery swapping allows drivers to quickly replace depleted packs with fully charged packs, rather than plugging the vehicle into a charging point. The swap could help ease growing strains on power grids as millions of drivers recharge, but experts warn it can only take off significantly if batteries become standardized across the EU. industry.

If China succeeds in making the swap a large-scale success, the change could undermine the business models of global brands like Tesla, Volkswagen and General Motors, whose electric vehicles are designed and powered by their own proprietary batteries and, in the case of Tesla, its own charging network.

Even slight changes in the country’s fortunes can have significant consequences for these automakers, whose future depends on success in the world’s largest auto market.

The Chinese swap plans, announced piecemeal in recent weeks and months but little known outside the domestic auto sector, are part of Beijing’s broader plan to make 25% of car sales all-electric in China. by 2025, more than 6 million current-based passenger vehicles. forecasts. Estimates vary widely as to the number of interchangeable batteries.

The Department of Industry and Information (MIIT), a leading proponent of the battery swap, did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment on the company’s battery swap strategy. China.

Moreover, major Chinese players are also watching overseas.

Ningde-based CATL (Contemporary Amperex Technology Company Ltd) (300750.SZ), the world’s largest battery maker, told Reuters it was developing exchange services not just for China, but “to meet to the demand of world markets”.

“We are accumulating experience in the Chinese market and at the same time communicating closely with foreign partners. You will receive more concrete information soon,” said CATL, which supplies about half of the Chinese market and more than 30% of the battery cells used. in electric vehicles globally.

Nio, a leading Chinese electric vehicle maker, plans to offer U.S. customers battery swap services by 2025, the company’s North American director Ganesh Iyer said. It has more than 800 swap stations in China and has just installed its first in Europe.

“IT’S NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN”

Such plans clash with views expressed by electric vehicle pioneer and global leader Tesla in March 2021 when it rejected the viability of large-scale battery swapping in China. He tried the exchange in the United States years ago and gave it up.

Industry leaders are divided on whether China’s push can overcome the reluctance of European and American automakers to abandon their own battery designs and adopt standardized models.

“You’ll never get automakers to accept interchangeable batteries,” said Andy Palmer, former CEO of Aston Martin and currently director of electric vehicle maker Switch Mobility.

John Holland, commercial director of wireless charging company Momentum Dynamics for Europe and the Middle East, said convergence on batteries was creating a dilemma for automakers.

“So how do you differentiate your product? »

Tesla (TSLA.O), GM (GM.N) and Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE) say they are not exploring battery swapping at this time.

A GM spokesman told Reuters that swappable batteries “are not part of our strategy at this time.”

A VW spokesperson said the company initially considered changing batteries to avoid wait times at charging stations, but advances in fast charging and falling costs of non-swappable batteries have led them to focus on the latter.

“Nevertheless, our strategists closely monitor and assess the competitive environment and all developments in this area,” the German automaker said.

A Tesla spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Both trade-in and regular network charging have critics and cheerleaders in a rapidly changing arena of automotive technology.

The ease of battery swapping in electric scooters has been demonstrated in Asia and Europe, but the challenge is to adapt the technology to larger and more complex cars, trucks and vans. See the accompanying short story: find out more

Concerns over the length of trade times have also faded, with Nio saying he has automated the process so that it takes just 90 seconds.

Yet the more familiar side of grid charging has a huge head start and is reinforced by the fact that there are already billions of dollars worth of charging infrastructure built around the world.

Automakers are also rolling out electric vehicles with improved batteries that offer longer ranges and faster charging times, which could make swapping obsolete.

“THE BIGGEST GAME IN TOWN”

In China, MIIT released the world’s first auto industry standards for interchange technology last year. They entered into force in November, specifying safety requirements, test methods and inspection rules for electric vehicles with interchangeable batteries.

The ministry aims to have more than 100,000 interchangeable battery vehicles and more than 1,000 exchange stations, in total, in 11 cities by 2023; major city stations will accommodate both passenger and commercial vehicles, while outlying provincial cities will focus on electric heavy-duty trucks.

Yet a key uncertainty for China’s ambitions is whether enough automakers are adopting standardized batteries, a hurdle that has scuttled attempts at battery swapping over the past decade – but, if overcome , it could propel the technology to a viable scale. Read a brief history of interchangeable batteries: learn more

There is a long way to go. Even the trade-in option offered to customers by Nio uses the company’s own batteries, limiting service to people driving Nio cars equipped with the company’s proprietary batteries.

CATL, which has helped Nio develop interchangeable batteries, has signed up Chinese engine FAW Motor as the first customer for its new Evogo battery swap service and plans to expand the service to other Chinese automakers.

CATL wants national companies to accept its standard battery design so its stations can service models from multiple brands, according to a person close to the company who declined to be named due to commercial sensitivities, adding that it s expected more car brands to adopt its standardized designs. .

The company is “the biggest game in town” for electric vehicle batteries, said Tu Le, general manager of Sino Auto Insights.

“They can offer a large footprint for exchange stations and a low cost of using those stations,” he said.

Meanwhile, among those Chinese companies building networks of exchange stations, Shanghai-based Aulton New Energy Automotive Technology said it was working with automakers to develop standardized batteries, and with Sinopec to install batteries. stations in 30,000 Sinopec gas stations in China by 2030.

Aulton did not respond to a request for comment.

MAGIC IN AMERICA?

While international automakers may resist swappable batteries, they depend on Chinese sales to fund their costly transition to electric and will have no choice but to adapt to the market there, according to many industry experts. sector.

Plus, if Beijing finally makes swappable batteries mandatory “and starts saying, ‘okay, the only car you’re allowed to produce is the one that meets the standard’…you’ll have to comply to stay in business. in China, says John Helveston, assistant professor at the George Washington University School of Engineering.

Some proponents of the exchange look beyond China.

Battery swapping “is too convenient, too economical and too logical not to happen on a large scale in Europe and the United States,” said Levi Tillemann, head of policy and international affairs at Ample, a San Francisco-based battery swapping startup.

“It’s kind of wishful thinking to imagine that this is a uniquely Chinese phenomenon,” he added.

Ample, one of the few battery swap developers outside of China, has raised $275 million from investors including energy companies Shell, Repsol and Eneos, taking its valuation to $1 billion.

It is running pilot programs with Uber (UBER.N) and car rental startup Sally, and says it is working with several unnamed automakers.

“With a relatively small number of heavily used vehicles, we can deploy and operate a battery swap system cost-effectively,” Tillemann said. “The fleets are therefore a prime target for us.”

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Reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit, Nick Carey in London and Norihiko Shirouzu in Beijing; Additional reporting by Victoria Valdersee in Berlin; Assembly Pravin Char

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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