The conversation around widespread adoption of electric vehicles is inherently linked to charging: are there enough chargers? Do they charge my car fast enough? Are they connected to an electricity grid that does not run entirely on coal?
Billions of dollars have been poured into developing batteries that can charge quickly, as well as chargers that can charge a vehicle in just 20 minutes. Few, at least in the US, really talk about swapping batteries for cars and trucks.
Ample happens to be one of the few leading that charge.
Rising from the ashes of its failed predecessor, Better Place, Ample has brought battery swapping to Los Angeles and will soon introduce the technology to Japan and Madrid through a series of partnerships with fleet partners such as Uber and Eneos. Unlike its predecessor, Ample doesn’t try to deploy battery swap stations until it knows it will have the customers to use them.
Since we last checked in with Ample co-founder and president John de Souza a year ago, the San Francisco-based startup has grown quietly, building new swap stations and acquiring additional fleet partners around the world.
Meanwhile, battery swapping technology for cars has gained a foothold in China. Beijing is backing some companies promoting the technology as part of its broader plan to ensure that 25% of all cars sold are electric by 2025. Automakers Nio and Geely, battery-swap technology developer Aulton and oil producer Sinopec said this year they plan to build 24,000 swap stations across China by 2025. Today there are 1,400.
We caught up with De Souza to talk about the implications of China’s battery swap investment, why scaling up fast-charging infrastructure is a lot harder than we think and asked his advice on how hardware startups can scale while staying lean.
(Editor’s note: The following interview, part of an ongoing series with founders building trucking companies, has been edited for length and clarity.)
You’re calling me from Madrid, where you said Ample was targeted as the next launch city.
Yes, we are currently deploying in Madrid. We are working with Repsol to quickly roll out a broad network; Uber will partner with fleet managers for ride sharing; and automakers (which we haven’t publicly announced yet) to ship vehicles with the Ample solution.
From a customer perspective, our partnerships focus on ride sharing, car sharing and last mile delivery.
Changing batteries can be difficult as it requires some battery standardization. Ample offers modular battery exchange, so you don’t have to change the entire battery pack. Can you explain why that is important?
There are two aspects of Ample’s modular battery swap that are important. First, it offers the flexibility to fit our packs into vehicles of different sizes and shapes by rearranging the modular batteries. This means that we can take different capacities into account by varying the number of modules. It also makes our robotically managed stations more cost-effective, as you move lighter modules instead of traditional packs.
Secondly, Ample’s patent means that it allows modules to adapt to the electrical characteristics of vehicles, allowing us to work with OEMs without requiring any changes to the vehicle. We can also use the same modules in different vehicles, making it easy to introduce new chemistries into cars.
You say Ample’s batteries are vehicle independent, but you still have to somehow work with car manufacturers to make sure they don’t put their own batteries in the vehicle, right?
We work with car manufacturers to buy battery-free cars. As we work more closely with them, it’s to get them a replacement battery. They may get their batteries from Samsung, LG or CATL, but we can give them a battery that is a drop-in replacement. So just as a customer chooses the type of tires or seat they want in the car, they may one day choose which batteries to use. If they put our batteries in it, it’s interchangeable. If they put their own, they are not.