Ample just raised $160 million in a Series C funding round led by Moore Strategic Ventures to build a battery-swap infrastructure for refueling electric vehicles. Existing investors Eneos and Shell Ventures participated, along with Momentum Venture Capital (the corporate venture arm of Singapore's public transport operator) and PTT (Thailand’s state-owned gas and oil company), plus Clayton Christensen's Disruptive Innovation Fund and Spanish energy company Repsol.
Hold on. Is the world going to refuel its growing fleet of electric vehicles with a network of distributed charging stations or with modular battery-swap stations?
Industry veterans might think this question was already answered back in 2013 when Shai Agassi's battery-swap startup went bankrupt after raising $850 million from investors. Better Place had a grand vision of car-transportation-as-a-service, along with specially designed fleets of cars and the construction of battery charging/swapping stations.
The debate seemed even further settled when Elon Musk stopped prevaricating about whether swapping was an optional feature for Teslas, after deleting tweets touting a swapping station pilot that never materialized.
In spite of those omens, co-founders John de Souza and Khaled Hassounah started Ample seven years ago to create a faster, lower-cost approach to modular EV battery swapping. As far as Ample, its investors and its customers are concerned, the swap-versus-charge debate is still raging.
Learning from Shai Agassi's mistakes
Two things that Agassi got right, according to de Souza, were choosing battery swapping rather than charging and aiming to use his company's battery fleet to help balance the electrical grid.
Where Better Place went wrong, according to Ample's founders, was in attempting to standardize the battery for all automakers and trying to convince automakers to build their cars around the battery. Other missteps, according to Ample, included attempting to switch out the entire 1,000-pound battery pack for each swap.
Hassounah said, "We built a technology to fit in existing cars without making a single modification," adding, "As long as we build our adapter plate to have the same bolt pattern, the same space overall, the same connector [as the existing battery], we drop it in the same way you replace a tire."
"A lot of a battery is metal to provide structural rigidity and safety, and we don't move that at all." The founders said their swap process moves about 10 percent of the weight of the total battery, "which means cheaper, simpler, faster [battery-swap] robotics that can be deployed fast."
Surely EV battery design and performance must be enormous differentiators for automakers?
"At this stage, everybody builds more or less the same battery, even though they try to convince us otherwise," said Hassounah.
Charging by the mile
"We're going to be the equivalent model of a gas station for electric vehicles. The service we want to offer is that you can get your energy cheap and fast," said Hassounah.
"We own the stations, and we're going to…charge people [on a] cents-per-mile [basis]."
In 2013, when Better Place went out of business, Jigar Shah, co-founder and president of Generate Capital and now director of the Department of Energy's Loan Programs Office, argued that the right business plan for Better Place "should have been like SunEdison, technology-agnostic and execution focused on a new business model: cars on a cost-per-mile basis."
That aligns precisely with the approach that Ample is taking right now.
Ample's initial marketing efforts focused on vehicle fleets. Uber is testing Ample’s robotic swap stations in the San Francisco Bay Area; Ample is also working with NYC-based fleet provider Sally. The company's website shows video of a Nissan Leaf and several other cars getting their batteries swapped out in rapid succession.
Big bill for EV charging build-out
The largest U.S. EV charging network providers plan on aggressive growth in the coming years. Two of them, ChargePoint and EVgo, raised more than $1 billion in total by going public via reverse mergers with special-purpose acquisition companies this year.
The infrastructure bill working its way through Congress could steer up to $7.5 billion toward building out EV charging infrastructure, but that’s just a drop in the bucket, as Canary Media has reported. A study from Atlas Public Policy forecasts a need for $87 billion in charging infrastructure investments by 2030, including $39 billion for 495,000 public chargers. Another study from GridLab, Energy Innovation and the University of California, Berkeley forecasts a cost of about $12 billion per year for the charging infrastructure and associated power grid upgrades.
Neither of these studies even mentions the word "swap."
"Something is broken with this model"
"If somebody tried to sell you a gas car [that] took you half an hour to fill the gas tank, you'd never buy it. It's just so unappealing. I think with electric cars, you're trying to persuade people that [that time investment] is OK. But in reality, it's not," said de Souza.
He added that Elon Musk's EV market segment is "wealthy people who have multiple cars, where [charging] works well."
But roughly half of all U.S. households can’t depend on convenient chargers located near where they live, according to National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates. That's because they lack garages or because of the cost-sharing barriers to installing chargers in multifamily housing.
"Something is broken with this model. Most of humanity does not have a parking garage with access to electricity or drives less than 50 miles a day. And that's really the fundamental [EV] use case," said de Souza.
"Electric vehicles have a low cost, but you only get the benefit of low cost if you use the car for a long time. And you only have the benefit of low greenhouse gas emissions if you run it on renewable energy for a long time,” de Souza said. He argues that EV owners would be better off swapping batteries than hanging onto the one that comes with the purchase. “Getting married to this expensive physical asset that depreciates very rapidly not only hurts you financially, it also hurts greenhouse gas emissions."
"We're in the energy delivery business," said Hassounah. "Our goal is to build infrastructure that's capital-efficient, that can be deployed very rapidly, and can get people energy as fast as gas and cheaper than gas from day one."
(Lead photo courtesy of Ample)