Could battery swapping prove to be the solution to decarbonising trucks?

If you’ve been following the debate around how to decarbonise our heaviest vehicles, you’ll be aware that it’s essentially been a three-horse race. Out in front are battery trucks, with megawatt chargers soon to give them a boost. Close behind are hydrogen fuel cell trucks, accompanied by all the heated arguments that hydrogen always seems to generate. And the outside bet is still ‘electric road systems’, i.e. pantograph trucks with overhead wires on key stretches of motorway.

Fuso eCanter on Ample battery swap station. Image source: Ample, 2023

Well, it seems we have a late entrant which might just have the potential to pull off a surprise win – battery swapping. A company called Ample this week announced a partnership with Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation to trial its battery swap technology with the Fuso eCanter truck in Japan.

For those not familiar, battery swapping has a bit of a chequered history. The idea is really old, first proposed in 1896 it was used successfully for electric trucks in the US from 1910 to 1924 and has been used for forklifts worldwide since the 1940s. However, for modern EVs the concept fell out of favour almost exactly a decade ago with the huge failure of battery swap company Better Place. CEO Shai Agassi convinced investors to part with $700 million as of 2011, but in 2013 the company filed for bankruptcy amid allegations of wasteful spending and financial mismanagement.

Since the failure of Better Place, battery swapping has had a very low profile, but with some uses particularly in China. However, with Ample raising over $160 million in funding and multiple plaudits in the press, it seems that maybe investors are ready to take another serious look at the idea.

So what are the pros and cons? The reason it was first in operation over a century ago is obvious – swap the battery and you can effectively recharge your vehicle in minutes. The other big plus, which is more pertinent today, is that the actual recharging can be managed over many hours, reducing peak energy demand at recharging locations. That’s much easier to manage than hooking up megawatt fast chargers, and could be integrated more easily with nearby wind or solar.

And the downsides? Well, there are two main drawbacks. The easier one to manage is technical – the swap stations need to be automated, which requires complex robotics, and there’s some risk of damage to the expensive battery packs. It won’t be easy, but it’s certainly not impossible, more a question of how cheaply it can be done to the required standard.

The tougher problem is persuading multiple vehicle manufacturers to standardise their battery packs, and their location in the vehicle. Personally, I think the odds of success are higher for trucks than cars. There are fewer truck manufacturers and fewer models, the vehicle architecture is more standardised and batteries are often located in an easy to access part of the chassis between the wheels. And the range problem is bigger for trucks, so there is just a greater incentive to find a novel solution – manufacturers have already formed alliances to develop megawatt charging and hydrogen refuelling.

As things stand, Ample seem to be focused on the car market, which is understandable from the point of view of attracting investors. Most car brands are part of large multi-brand groups, often sharing common architecture for their EVs, so it’s not impossible they may try battery swapping – especially in America. However, as EV range and charge-point availability are rapidly increasing, the niche for battery swapping (and fuel cells) in cars is rapidly shrinking. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to either, (a) see Ample pivot to focus on heavy commercial vehicles, or, (b) see a new commercial vehicle battery swapping company pop up. They will have to come from behind, but I think the competition to power long range heavy vehicles may soon be a four horse race.

If we want to keep the EV momentum going, it’s time to make small cars cool again

In the world of EV sales, things are shaping up for a showdown between market forces and, well, common sense.

On the side of common sense, authorities in Paris have declared war on ‘auto-besity’, and are going to introduce parking fees that get progressively higher based on the weight and size of vehicles. Deputy mayor David Belliard said SUVs were incongruous in an urban environment. “There are no dirt paths, no mountain roads … SUVs are absolutely useless in Paris. Worse, they are dangerous, cumbersome and use too many resources to manufacture.”

Unfortunately, the higher charges in Paris won’t apply to electric SUVs. Which is a shame, because the market forces that have pushed ICE vehicles towards SUVs seem to be having an even greater effect on the EV market, where an ever higher proportion of the models on offer are SUVs and ‘crossovers’.

The trend towards heavier vehicles started in the US as a way for manufacturers to avoid stricter air quality regulations that did not apply to ‘light trucks’. But it continues on the logic that big vehicles don’t cost that much more to make than small ones, but consumers will accept a proportionally bigger price mark-up. As manufacturers switch over to EVs, with expensive batteries, it’s easier to lose that extra cost in a big luxury vehicle which has a larger profit margin to start with.

Still – does a trend towards bigger cars matter, if they’re electric? Well, yes, for a lot of reasons, but three in particular – equality, efficiency and liveability.

First, equality. A few years ago I fully expected the switch to EVs to reverse the trend towards SUVs, as the desire for greater range would push consumers towards lighter vehicles. Instead, manufacturers have doubled down on size and found they have more space for giant battery packs, which have come down in price to levels which are ‘affordable’, at least in the higher end of the market. But where does that leave ‘mass market’ adoption?

Big, heavy EVs won’t be cheap for a long time (if ever) because they need lots of batteries. If that’s all that European manufacturers want to make, then one of two things will happen. Either the rollout of EVs will stall, and leave the majority of consumers with no option but to stick with ICEs (and you could be forgiven for thinking this has happened if you read the current backlash in the press). Or, more likely, Chinese companies will fill the void and eat their lunch.

Second, efficiency. We are heading for a 100% renewable grid – but we’re not there yet. And don’t forget, we have to switch most of our heating to electricity, which will need a lot more renewables, and that’s predicted to keep the price of electricity high for years. So if your electric car is twice as heavy as it needs to be, and uses twice as much energy, then the extra power you use is adding to demand and slowing our progress towards getting rid of fossil fuels and bringing prices down. (And don’t forget that it’s also taken more energy to build it.)

Efficiency matters – comparing like-with-like, EVs beat ICE. But as of now, smaller, lighter petrol cars still have a smaller environmental footprint than bigger, heavier EVs.

Finally, liveability. More SUVs make it harder to get people to cycle and walk, because they take up more road space and are more likely to kill people in collisions. And they need bigger parking spaces, accelerating the trend to tarmac over more of our urban space, exacerbating flash flooding and the heat island effect.

So, what’s the answer? I think it’s high time to make small cars cool again. I don’t know what they’ll do in America, where their icons are the Hummer and the F150 pick-up, but we’re European. The re-launch of the Fiat 500 was a great success a few years ago, as was the new Mini (even though it’s admittedly a lot bigger than the old Mini).

Our automotive industry has a great history of making small cars profitable, and cool. The ‘European dream’ if there is one, is zipping from a pavement café to the beach, parking in a space not much bigger than a picnic blanket at either end. Michael Caine didn’t need an SUV to transport his gold bullion, ‘Nicole’ and ‘Papa’ didn’t need to impress with a Chelsea tractor. It’s time for the electric revolution to give us new cars that are small but iconic.

Will electrification leave rural and small bus/coach operators behind?

It’s fair to say that city bus operators are leading the way in the UK (and elsewhere) in terms of vehicle electrification. It’s easy to see why – buses are providing a visible public service, and public opinion is firmly demanding cleaner air.

Plus, it’s always been the case that the newest buses are used first in cities, with older vehicles moved out to a second (and third, and fourth) life in more rural areas. This makes sense because city buses are used more intensively, so newer vehicles are preferred. It’s especially true for electric buses because (a) their higher capital cost can be more quickly recouped from their lower running cost, and (b) they save even more money where more polluting vehicles are subject to Low Emission Zone charges.

Bus in a field of wheat

There’s a similar picture with coaches. Large operators buy new vehicles to run the high mileage, profitable inter-city routes, while small operators, with only a handful of vehicles, are using coaches that are 10 or 15 years old to do school runs and day trips in villages and market towns.

So, will rural areas just have to wait for cleaner vehicles, and can we assume that as the current crop of electric buses (and a few coaches) will filter through the market over the next decade?

Well, maybe, but maybe not, and that has got smaller operators worried. At the excellent Zemo electric bus event with Abellio in London last week, I was chatting with Peter Bradley of the UK Coach Operators’ Association (UKCOA). We’d spent the morning hearing about the huge investments going into charging infrastructure for electric buses in London depots – very inspiring, but even if UKCOA members are able to buy a used electric coach in a few years’ time, how are they going to afford the infrastructure to charge it?

A couple of positive thoughts on this came out of the event. I chatted to Lucy Parkin of Kleanbus, who are taking old Optare Solo buses and repowering them with an electric drivetrain. Equipmake have just started to do the same for coaches. At the start of the electrification journey, taking an old vehicle and fitting it with an electric drivetrain was the only way to get electric versions of heavy vehicles. Once new electric trucks and buses started rolling off production lines, repowering was perhaps seen as a bit ‘Heath Robinson’, but now it’s having a resurgence in sectors where vehicles have a long life.

A burgeoning repower market may provide smaller/rural operators with a way to buy cheaper electric vehicles without waiting decades, but what about charging infrastructure? That’s going to be a tough nut to crack, and something rural councils need to address in their charging strategies. But one possible piece of the puzzle came out of chatting to Jon Eardley of Abellio. His depots are investing in dozens of high power chargers that buses will use overnight, but their depots are all but empty during the day. They are already in discussion with coach operators bringing day-trippers into London to offer their depots as parking locations, and potentially charging locations, during the day.

Is the electric revolution going to run out of key metals?

For years, whenever I went to an event talking about electric vehicles, there would always be some chap jabbing his finger and saying, “Yes, but where’s all the lithium going to come from, eh?” I’m sure you’ve met the same type of guy (and it is always a man).

It’s a fair question, but the way it was asked tended to undermine the argument. It was always obvious that this was someone desperate for the EV lobby to be proved wrong, so I had to suspect whatever they said was guided by motivated reasoning. History makes the ‘we’re running out’ argument just feel like crying wolf – Limits to Growth never happened, Peak Oil never happened, we’ve been here before surely?

“… the age of electricity and of copper will be short. At the intense rate of production that must come, the copper supply of the world will last hardly a score of years. … Our civilization based on electrical power will dwindle and die.”

Copper mining expert Ira Joralemon, in 1924

Now, however, the argument seems a little harder to dismiss. Every few days I see a new article or report about the coming supply crunch for the various metals needed in EVs (and solar panels, and wind turbines, and everything else electric).

Most recently I saw a presentation using copper as an example – it’s the third most used metal in industry, after iron and aluminium, and of course it’s used in everything electrical. It’s easy to paint a pretty dire picture, using reports from mainstream sources like the International Energy Agency and S&P Global. Inventories are down, we’re having to process ores of steadily lower quality, and new mines take over 10 years from discovery to production.

But again, we have been here before. Wikipeadia points out that in 1924 geologist and copper-mining expert Ira Joralemon warned: “… the age of electricity and of copper will be short. At the intense rate of production that must come, the copper supply of the world will last hardly a score of years. … Our civilization based on electrical power will dwindle and die.”

So what are we to conclude? Without pretending to be a minerals expert, here’s what I think we need to take away:

First, in the long term, metal shortages won’t stop the move towards electrification of society. We’ll find new metal deposits (astonishingly I just read that only 40% of US territory has been geologically mapped in detail). We’ll make more of our wiring out of aluminium, we’ll commercialise different battery chemistries. We’ll do things that nobody has thought of as yet.

Second, in the short term, prices will go up. It’s fair to say that we’ve left tackling climate change to the eleventh hour, and so we have ridiculously steep targets to reduce emissions. Transforming our energy system in a matter of just a decade is going to bump up against the timelines to build new mines or take a new type of battery from the university lab to the car showroom. We’re already seeing battery prices increase after decades of falling.

Third, we (obviously) need to be as efficient as possible in our use of energy and resources – and those high prices will help force this. In the case of transport, it means that SUVs are still a bad idea, even if they’re fully electric. We may want to re-examine the case for plug-in hybrids vs fully electric – more on that in a future post. And we will need diverse strategies – a variety of low carbon liquid fuels, travel demand management, modal shift, i.e. every tool in the box.

Finally, there will be winners and losers, and we are probably right to worry about the destabilising effect of that on global politics. It’s true that China currently processes a huge proportion of many of the key metals. It is unfortunate that this supply deficit is looming just as governments around the world are backing off from globalisation and returning to national interest and protectionism.

It is worrying that in pushing for domestic resource extraction, the US and Europe may well prioritise this strategic interest over nature, indigenous communities and clean air and water. And in countries with less stable institutions, concentrated mineral wealth historically does more harm than good, propping up corrupt and authoritarian regimes.

To end on a slightly more optimistic note, our response to the pandemic has proved that technological developments that used to take 10 years can happen in two, if there’s the will. Let’s hope that applies to new types of battery, motor or mining techniques as well as vaccines.

The reality of self-driving cars is a lot closer than you think

Google got itself all over the media last week when it put up a video of people trying out its new self-driving car. It’s a great story, and the commentators who are into techy stuff waxed lyrical about how it could give mobility to the elderly or disabled, and just generally free up time for us all. But I’ll bet most people were thinking ‘yeah, but…’ – that’s years away, because who’s going to trust a computer to drive a car, given how often the ones on our desks crash?

What fewer people pointed out was that the driverless car won’t be a leap of faith, it’s a series of small steps – and we’ve already taken a lot of them.

Driver and smartphone

“Alright, you’re so smart, you drive!!”

Get on a motorway, and plenty of people put on cruise control. Increasingly that’s augmented by systems that warn you if you’re going out of your lane, and now systems that stop you getting too close to the car in front. A European Union-funded project is working on using similar technology to allow ‘platooning’ of lorries, i.e. allowing them to follow each other very closely, thus saving a large amount of fuel.

OK, so a motorway is a simple driving environment, but at the slower end, a number of cars will now park themselves for you. And several companies are working on systems that will take over the car to prevent collisions (Volvo being the main one, of course).

Software reliability is an issue, of course, but it’s one the automotive industry has been dealing with for years. The engine of every modern car is entirely reliant on computer hardware and software to run, and failures in that software could cause serious accidents, but it doesn’t. That’s because, let’s face it, you apply a very different set of criteria if a crash is, well, a crash, rather than if it’s just an inconvenience.

It won’t be long before a significant proportion of drivers have experienced vehicles that pretty much drive themselves, at least for some of the time. It’s not hard to envisage a time when motorway driving could mean hitting cruise control, and then getting out a good book. And urban driving will soon involve a super-satnav guiding you precisely around the streets, safe in the knowledge that if you don’t spot that cyclist, the car won’t let you hit her anyway.

As we drive down the current road, we’re just steadily handing more and more control over to the car. Eventually, the reality will be that the car looks like it does now, but the manual controls are really just there as a back-up, for us to take over if something does go wrong, or just if we feel like it. The biggest barrier to a lot of this, and particularly removing the steering wheel altogether (as in Google’s car), will be legal, given laws such as the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949) which states that drivers “shall at all times be able to control their vehicles”.

However, our technology is getting better at an exponential rate, while human drivers… how to be charitable… are certainly not improving as fast. So whether the legal issues to allow self-driving cars take years, or more likely decades, to sort out, eventually the really tough question will be this. At what point will we view humans controlling cars as the really risky option?



Google’s YouTube video here:

Longer article exploring the legal issues here:

Who’d have thought running an electricity grid and running a railway would have so much in common?

I was at a transport industry networking event the other night, chatting to Peter White of the University of Westminster. He was outlining strategies for reducing emissions from rail travel, and I was explaining the potential role of electric vehicles in grid balancing, and we realised that both problems were surprisingly alike.

The problem with running a railway is that you have to invest in loads of rolling stock to meet rush hour demand, and then it sits there idle most of the day. Here’s the total number of passengers in and out of London stations, hour by hour, on average (DfT stats):

That’s a lot of unused capacity outside the rush hour. If we could just spread out that morning rush, by employers allowing (or even encouraging) employees to have staggered start and finish times, the railways would be a whole lot cheaper to run – and more pleasant to travel on.

Turns out, that’s just what happened during the Olympics. As well as encouraging businesses to promote home-working during the Olympics, the ODA and Transport for London asked them to stagger shifts.

One of the most striking successes was with City trading firms. They’d always maintained there was no way they could allow flexible working, because of trading times, but with the Olympic spirit behind them they tried out an ‘early’ and ‘late’ shift. Turns out it worked beautifully, because the early traders were clued up on the Eastern markets, and the late traders got to see how things played in the US. How many other types of business could benefit from this approach?

So how’s all this like running the electricity grid? Let’s say you’re National Grid, and you’re responsible for supplying us all with electricity. Your biggest problem is variable demand – everyone wants power at 5.30pm, and nobody wants it at 4am. Here’s the graph of demand on the UK grid through one day (1st January 2012 as it happens, data from National Grid):

So you have base-load generators, like coal and nuclear, which are cheap but hard to turn on and off, and you have peak-load generators (usually gas), which are only turned on when you need them, but which are therefore more expensive.

Just as with the railways, if we could spread demand more evenly, or store electricity, we could generate our power more efficiently. Grid operators call it ‘filling the bath-tub’. This is one reason why the electricity companies are so interested in electric cars – they all come with an energy storage device (i.e. the battery).

If we all went and bought electric cars tomorrow, and charged them overnight, it would allow for a much more even load on the grid. This would allow the energy companies to run more base load generation, and therefore provide cheaper electricity.  Of course, the opposite is also true – if everyone put their car on charge when they got home from work, we’d need even more peak capacity, making power more expensive.

Incidentally, price and greenhouse gas emissions are pretty closely linked here. If you buy an electric car in the UK right now, and charge it from midnight to 7am, you’ll be saving GHG compared to an equivalent petrol or diesel car. However, if you put your car on charge anytime from around midday to 10pm, you’ll be emitting around twice as much GHG as charging off-peak, and more than a petrol or diesel car.

Adding renewables like wind or solar to the mix is even more of a headache, because you don’t know when you’ll get the power. That’s when electric cars really come in handy – but more of that in a later post…

A bluffer’s guide to the difference between a ‘parallel’ hybrid and a ‘series’ hybrid. (And why the parallel hybrid came first.)

So, we’ve had the Prius around for a while, and that’s a hybrid – right? Then the Ampera/Volt comes along (with billboards everywhere you look), and it’s an electric car – or is it? Because it’s got a petrol engine too.

Well, when they’ve got their petrol engines running, the Prius and the Ampera represent two different ways of making a ‘hybrid’ – parallel and series, respectively. I’ve explained which technology I think is superior to many people at parties, and I still seem to have friends, so hopefully you’ll find this interesting too.

A ‘parallel’ hybrid has two complete drive-trains connected to the wheels, which operate in parallel, hence the name. Basically, you start with a regular petrol car (or a diesel, more of that in a later post) and you bolt on an electric motor and a battery that can also drive the wheels. The electric motor ‘assists’ the petrol engine when needed, allowing a car like a Prius to have a smaller petrol engine, and use less fuel, for a given level of performance.

The electrical energy in most parallel hybrids thus far has come from ‘regenerative braking’. Essentially, when you apply the brake, the wheels drive the electric motor in reverse, generating power which is stored in the battery. The new ‘plug-in’ Prius has a bigger battery, which you can charge up from a wall socket. This means that you can get a little over 10 miles on the electric motor alone, but most of the time that electrical power is still ‘blended’ with power from the petrol engine.

OK, sounds good right? Well yes, until you consider that a petrol engine is incredibly inefficient. At its most efficient, a ‘sweet spot’ of revs and load, it converts about 25-30% of the energy in the fuel into forward motion – the rest is mostly lost as heat out of the exhaust or the engine block. But that’s when you’re cruising at a steady, optimum speed. The rest of the time, when you’re accelerating, or decelerating, or in the wrong gear, the efficiency drops much lower. This means that the engine in a car has to be oversized to cope with all this variation.

Suppose you only needed the petrol engine to deliver a constant power, at constant revs? Like, say, the engine in an electrical generator. Hmmnn… and suppose you only had to have one drive train connected to the wheels, that would save a load of weight, right? Bingo! – you’re thinking of a ‘series’ hybrid. Electric motors drive the wheels, and they’re 85-90% efficient (very little heat loss), and that efficiency doesn’t vary much at different speeds. Then you charge up the battery using a small engine acting as a generator.

In theory, the series hybrid should be more efficient than a parallel hybrid, because the petrol engine only has to run at its optimum speed and load. It only has to deliver the average power requirement to the battery, which buffers this power, supplying more or less energy to the motors driving the wheels as the car accelerates, cruises etc. This is essentially what an Ampera does, although like a plug-in Prius it has a bigger battery, that you can charge up from the wall, so you can run the car on ‘pure electric’ mode for about 30 miles before the generator kicks in.

So why did we get a parallel hybrid, like the Prius, years before a series hybrid, like the Ampera? Well, it’s a simple question of what happens if it goes wrong. A parallel hybrid is in essence just a regular car with the electric motor helping out – if the electric drive train fails, you can still drive the car. But with a series hybrid, if the battery, the motor, or any of the complex systems managing them were to fail, you’re stuck at the side of the road waiting for a tow truck (or an electrician!). It’s only now, with ‘pure’ electric cars like the Leaf on the market, that big manufacturers have got enough confidence in the technology.

In my opinion, the Ampera, or cars like it, will lead the mass adoption of electric cars, for several reasons. But that’s for another post…