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One of the biggest challenges in electrifying a fleet of vehicles – apart from adapting to the range and limitations of the vehicles themselves – is building the expensive charging infrastructure to support it.
But a California startup is making a pitch for a solution that almost completely negates the need for charging infrastructure: Battery replacement.
“The idea is very, very simple, which is that instead of trying to move energy into energy form … you move energy physically,” said Khaled Hassounah, co-founder and CEO of Ample.
Ample crashed into the electric car scene about nine months ago, after developing its stealth battery replacement technology for seven years. The company has plans for a rapid expansion: It raised a $ 160 million Series C funding round in August and a $ 50 million investment in November, bringing its total support so far to $ 280 million.
How Ample’s technology works: The company starts by equipping a city with a lot of battery exchange stations, each the size of two parking spaces; The stations do not require permanent construction, and “may be located at gas stations, grocery stores, or next to the road.” Once the network is in place, participating electric vehicles can pull up and get a robotic arm swap in newly charged, “lego-like” modular batteries – all in about 10 minutes.
This idea is not entirely new. Tesla began showing off a battery replacement system in 2013, but few Tesla drivers were interested in participating. The company largely abandoned the concept in 2015. Another startup, Better Place, raised nearly $ 1 billion on the promise of five minutes of battery replacement, among other things, to end up in bankruptcy.
Hassounah believes that Ample will succeed in this area, where others have failed thanks to the modular construction of its car batteries. Breaking the batteries up into smaller chunks not only allows them to fit a wider range of vehicles, but also makes the batteries much easier and easier to replace, he said.
The company is also not aimed at individual drivers, at least not yet. It positions itself as a solution, mainly for fleet and commercial applications. In fact, Ample’s first installation this year in the San Francisco Bay Area involves a fleet of Uber drivers, which Hassounah described as the “most challenging use case” that could prove the technology to other types of fleets. Ample has also partnered with Sally, an electric car rental company, to expand the concept to New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.
The appeal of battery replacement, Hassounah said, is twofold: Fleet managers could avoid the sometimes insurmountable need to build lots of charging stations, and their vehicles could be recharged in minutes, not hours, much as they would at a gas. station.
“Once you’ve done [electricity] acting as gas, you can get a lot of very large fleets able to make the transition more hassle-free, “Hassounah said.
While it usually costs millions to build enough chargers for a fleet, it costs $ 0 in advance to use Ample’s network of battery replacement stations. The company covers the cost of building the stations and then charges users a cost per. mile for the energy supplied, which Hassounah said ends up being about 20 percent cheaper than gas.
Part of the reason Ample can build its stations quickly and cheaply is because they usually do not require upgrading electrical infrastructure. The stations are simply connected to the grid and gradually charge the batteries when the energy is cheapest and richest. Hassounah said it takes Ample about six weeks to equip a new city or depot with a network of exchange stations.
Although battery replacement has its advantages over charging for some applications, Hassounah does not see charging as Ample’s competition. He said charging still makes sense in many situations, especially for drivers who can easily connect for eight hours or more at home each night.
Ample, Hassounah said, is actually competing against gas – and aims to make its service a cheaper, faster and generally better option.
He also does not pretend that battery replacement will be final in the transition to electric car fleets.
“We need to keep an open mind about finding the right solutions that work,” Hassounah said.