The Chinese startup U Power stirs the EV battery swapping pot, deploying guided robotic vehicles for speed and efficiency. Image courtesy of UPower.

EV Battery Swapping Means Less Downtime For Fleets

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Electric vehicles have been winning over fleet managers, but working around the downtime for battery charging can be a stumbling block for fleets on a tight schedule. Fast-charging batteries are one solution. EV battery swapping is emerging as another option, once stakeholders can solve the age old problem of matching swapping-equipped vehicle with a swapping station network.

EV Battery Swapping For Less Downtime

EV battery swapping has not caught on here in the US — at least, not yet. However, it is rapidly gaining traction elsewhere, one hotspot being China.

In the latest development in that area, earlier today the Chinese startup U Power reported a quick follow-on order for its new EV battery swapping stations. Introduced earlier this year, the stations raise the bar on driver convenience by deploying free-standing, guided robotic vehicles to do the swapping.

U Power credits its robotic vehicles with a swapping time of just 2-3 minutes.

Other automotive stakeholders companies in China have a headstart on the EV battery swapping business, the leading example being NIO with a similar swapping time claim of 3 minutes. U Power has its work cut out for it, but the company aims to gain an edge with its “UOTTA” modular system.

The UOTTA system involves a single, modular battery that can be applied to both two-wheeled and light four-wheeled electric vehicles. Each swapping station can accommodate both kinds of vehicles. U Power explains that 2-wheelers take 1-2 modules and 4-wheelers take 4-8 modules.

The battery-swapping process is straightforward and user-friendly, with the user verifying their identity at the BSS with their mobile phone and following a series of simple prompts to access and swap their batteries,” U Power noted in a press statement dated April 8, announcing the official rollout of the service in Wuhu, China.

Big Plans For Swapping Stations

In the April 8 press release, U Power stated that it aims to recruit 800 customers for 60 EV battery swapping facilities.

That remains to be seen, though U Power makes a strong case for fleet adoption. The press release takes note of an analysis undertaken with other industry stakeholders in the run-up to the April 8 launch, leading CEO and Chairman Jia Li to state that “we have observed that the average daily mileage of a vehicle utilizing battery-swapping significantly surpasses that of vehicles which use traditional charging.”

“This indicates that the battery-swapping model genuinely enhances the efficiency of our customers’ vehicles, allowing customers to spend less time charging and more time travelling,” Li added.

As for how significant the time-saving is, the April 8 press release was rather thin on detail, but today’s press release, dated June 3, indicates that it was enough to satisfy at least one customer.

This morning, U Power announced that a “major taxi operator” working out of Jilan, China, has placed a follow-on order. This press release was also thin on detail, except to affirm that the U Power’s EV battery swapping system takes just 2-3 minutes.

If U Power is going up against NIO, they have pulled even in terms of swapping time (see more NIO battery swapping stories here). Despite its long lead, NIO also still seems to be in the process of figuring out break-even costs for about 20% of its swapping stations, as reported this year by CNBC.

That’s one area in which U Power may have spotted an edge. U Power notes that “the maintenance cycle of the swapping stations has been optimized, reducing weekly maintenance time by around six hours and enhancing operational efficiency by approximately 15%.”

U Power doesn’t explain whether the reference point is an earlier iteration of its own technology or systems developed by its competitors, but it does suggest that the company has been paying attention to behind-the-curtain details.

Battery Swapping Vs. EV Fast Charging

Considering that EV fast charging technology is already on the market, it’s fair to ask where battery swapping fits in.

Some fast-charging battery makers are expecting to deliver an EV charging time of under five minutes in the coming years. That’s most likely fast enough to satisfy the general public and many fleet managers as well.

Getting that charging time down to the 2-3 minute level is going to be quite a challenge, though. For fleets that count time by the minute, a quick battery swap has the advantage. Saving just a few minutes on can be a significant factor for gig workers, too.

Time isn’t the only factor, though. The cost of the battery is another element in play. In April, Forbes posted an analysis from a cost-of-ownership perspective that comes down on the side of battery swapping.

“Apart from convenience, battery-swapping also lowers customers’ initial cost of adopting an EV by allowing them to purchase only the vehicle body and lease the battery pack,” wrote the authors, Christopher Tang of UCLA Anderson School of Management and S. Alex Yang of London Business School.

“Compared to buying an EV with battery pack, this option could reduce customers’ initial adoption cost by thousands of dollars,” they added.

Advantages Of Sharing

Tang and Yang also take note of potential benefits in terms of battery lifecycle. With a stockpile of fresh batteries at the ready, swapping stations can recharge spent batteries at a leisurely pace aimed at preserving battery life.

Longer-lifespan EV batteries can also help manage the massive e-waste problem, while also conserving EV battery materials.

Grid management is another angle that factors in. Individual EV drivers are already responding to incentives that motivate off-peak EV charging, but Tang and Yang suggest that it would be more efficient to hand that job off to swapping stations.

“By charging batteries during off-peak hours, battery-swapping stations can reduce energy demand during peak periods or even function as ‘virtual power plants’, sending energy back to the local grid during these periods,” they note.

The EV Battery Chicken-&-Egg, Swapping Edition

Of course, getting people to buy a shell of an electric vehicle before they know where to swap out their battery is going to be a tough row to hoe.

Nevertheless, Tang and Yang anticipate that today’s battery swapping stakeholders have learned from the lessons of the past, as they outline in a newly published study titled, “Offering EV Battery Swapping as a Service: EV Manufacturers or Battery Producers?

Despite the challenges, the battery swapping market is growing. Aside from China, CleanTechnica has spotted fresh activity in the battery swapping market in Africa and South America, among other hotspots.

As for here in the US, CleanTechnica is keeping an eye on the EV battery swapping startup Ample, which has been focusing on electric fleet vehicles. Last December, Ample hooked up with Stellantis, a move that indicates the increased collaboration between swapping station manufactures and EV makers.

Photo (cropped): The Chinese startup U Power has launched a 2-3 minute, robot-assisted EV battery swapping station (courtesy of UPower).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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