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.

Is electrification already pushing European truck OEMs to change their business model?

Last Thursday was ‘truck decarbonisation day’ at the Road Transport Expo, and very interesting it was too. I could write about any number of topics that came up, but I’ll start by joining a few dots to point to what’s shaping up to be a significant change in the business models for truck manufacturers.

Like many in the audience, I was particularly struck by a comment from Harry Campey, of hauliers Campey’s of Selby. This small family firm is showing real leadership as an early adopter of electric trucks, and in his presentation Harry included the interesting detail that they had decided to risk taking their DAF electric truck without an R&M contract. Based on his own experience of driving a Tesla, Harry had concluded that EVs just wouldn’t need enough maintenance to make it worthwhile.

It’s an open secret in the automotive world that manufacturers don’t make great margins on the cars, or trucks, they sell. The majority of overall profits are actually made by the finance companies that loan you the money to buy, and the sale of parts and maintenance after the fact – with this latter being especially true for commercial vehicles. It’s early days to know for sure if electric trucks will need less maintenance, but based on the experience with cars few would bet against it.

What might fill the profits gap left by lower maintenance? Well, in the last few weeks Ford and GM have both struck deals with Tesla in the US to allow their customers to use the Tesla Supercharger network, making Tesla’s decision to invest in charging as well as cars look remarkably prescient. And late last year, four of the big European truck brands joined forces in the Mileance partnership, which is setting out to build the truck equivalent of the Supercharger network in Europe.

This could be the beginning of a pretty fundamental shift in the automotive world. Imagine if Henry Ford had also set out to own the distribution of petrol – that’s the model we may see for trucks, and possibly cars too if Tesla achieves the same success in Europe.

Shell and BP are certainly investing heavily in car charging networks, and with such a huge market they are unlikely to be edged out. Truck charging is still at an early stage though – will the vehicle manufacturers seek to make the sale of energy to power those trucks the revenue stream to replace maintenance? In January this year BP announced it was investing in six charging stations along a 600km stretch of the Rhine-Alpine corridor across Germany, so the oil companies won’t go down without a fight.

If the business model does shift, there’s also the question of where that leaves the dealer networks. One possibility is that electric trucks will be run for longer than diesel equivalents, with regular refurbishments to the cab, or drivetrain upgrades, throughout that longer life, which could be a lifeline for dealers.

There are certainly interesting times ahead…