The specter of Better Place hangs over battery-swap efforts today, but de Souza says Ample’s approach addresses issues that sank previous iterations of the technology.
For a third-party company like Better Place or Ample to gain ground, it must find a way to be compatible with vehicles hitting the road. But getting automakers to converge on a battery is a challenge: companies are increasingly choosing different battery designs and chemistries for different models.
Ample’s solution is a modular system. Rather than take the whole battery out at once and screw on a fresh one, the startup plans to fit several smaller packs into a battery frame. This cuts down on the cost for machinery needed to move batteries, since the pieces are smaller, de Souza says.
And crucially, the modular design could make it easier for automakers to sign on, de Souza says. Ample’s vision is for vehicle makers to deliver their cars with an empty space where the battery should be. Ample can then build an envelope for that specific vehicle and plug in as many modules as will fit.
The number of modules can be customized both to the size of the vehicle (a compact car will hold fewer than a large SUV) and to driver needs—someone might install just a few modules for daily driving but load up when going on a long trip, de Souza says.
So far, Ample’s swapping stations are compatible with two vehicle models that have the company’s special batteries installed: the Nissan Leaf and the Kia Niro. According to de Souza, the system works with 13 vehicle models, though no other automaker partners have been announced.
Some experts are skeptical that even this altered vision of battery swapping is practical. “I think battery swapping is unlikely to be the primary way that we manage batteries for the general vehicle fleet,” says Jeremy Michalek, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
Every make and model of electric vehicle on the road today has a different battery design, shape, and chemistry. Swapping requires standardization, and even if modules can provide some customization, they would still be a major constraint for automakers. “Putting the same size modules into different vehicles is very limiting,” he says.