China Is Already Doing EV Battery Swapping And Here’s Everything You Need To Know About It

Chinaswap Top

It may seem that China wants to be big in every possible technology. That’s because it is true. China does indeed want to be big in everything. Today we take a look at China’s efforts to become a big player in battery-swap technology for electric cars. This technology has mostly been rejected by the rest of the world, but China is launching new battery swap stations and new battery-swap cars by the dozen each week.  In this post: a bit of history, a bit of policy, and a lot of new cars. To keep this article within readable limits, I mainly look at battery swap solutions for passenger cars. For an overview of tractor trailer trucks with swappable battery packs see my earlier article. Besides cars and trucks, China also has large battery-swap programs for buses, light trucks, delivery vans, and whatnot. More on that, perhaps, in later stories.

What is battery swapping?

Battery swapping refers to a technique where an empty battery of an electric car is replaced rather than charged. The replacing, or swapping, happens in a swapping station. The swapping process itself can be partially manual, partially robotic, or fully robotic. The batteries are recharged either at the station itself or at a centralized charging facility. The ownership of the battery usually lies with the car maker, a utility, or the battery-swap company, not with the owner of the vehicle. The owner of the vehicle usually pays a monthly fee, sometimes called a lease, sometimes called a service-fee.

What is good, and what is not?

Proponents of battery swapping say that battery swaps are fast, a swap takes one to five minutes. Batteries are maintained well and charged in the optimal way, and will therefore put out more power and last longer. The batteries can be updated or changed completely to a new model, without any worry for the car’s owner. At the end of their life, the batteries will be fully recycled. The purchase price of a car with a swappable battery is lower, because the owner doesn’t need to pay for the battery when he buys the car. And finally, second-hand values will be higher compared to normal EVs because there is no battery deprecation.

Those that are not convinced say that a swap may be fast, but only when you don’t have to wait, and only when enough swapping stations are around. They say that the ever faster ways of conventional charging will make battery swapping unnecessary in the near future. Swapping, they say, isn’t as economical as it seems, because for each car the swapping system needs to have at least two batteries (one in the car and one in the station). A swapping station is large, taking the space of about three parking lots. It is expensive too, in China, building a swapping station costs an average 3 million yuan ($450,000). And swap isn’t cheap for manufacturers either: a battery-swap-ready EV costs some 65,000 yuan ($9,700) more to build than a regular EV with a non-swappable battery.

Standardization

For battery-swapping to work best, standardization may seem important. But it is also extremely difficult. It is not like standardizing a plug, a device that you add at the end of a cable. A battery is an integral part of an electric car. To fully standardize battery swapping, you’ll need a similar sort of batteries, of similar size, of similar weight, located in the same place in a vehicle, with the same cooling system, with the same connectors, with the same-size hatch, and with the same hatch-connectors. Try that out!

Another argument against standardization is that it forces car makers and/or battery makers to give up some of their unique battery technologies. But as we will see, some battery-swap companies in China say they have found a partial solution. Others don’t even try. NIO battery swap stations only work with NIO cars, understandably in a way, as standardizing just their cars will be hard enough. Naturally, engineers can engineer everything. In theory, it is possible to design swapping stations that can handle any kind of car and any sort of battery. But that will drive up size and cost so much that it seems practically impossible. The Chinese government is trying to force car companies to some standardization, so far without much success.

Battery swapping – the beginning

The idea of battery swapping is very old. The first known company to offer battery swaps was the General Vehicle Company (GeVeCo), founded in 1912 by General Electric and the Hartford Electric Light Company. The company offered a subscription-based battery swapping service for trucks. In 1924 the service was shut down, due to corporate troubles and the ascent of the gasoline-powered truck.

Better 1

It then took until 2007 for the idea to make a comeback, via a company called Better Place, based in the US but with most of its capital and operations in Israel. They launched several pilot projects with battery-swappable Renault and Nissan cars, but the concept didn’t catch on. After spending some $925 million the company went bankrupt in 2013.

There is a small side-story here: in 2010 Better Place tried to get China interested in their technology, they talked to State Grid, China’s main electric utility company, but this company wasn’t interested, as they were busy developing their own swapping systems, as we will see.

However, Better Place did develop a prototype with Chery Auto. At the time, I attended an event headlined by a representative of Better Place in Beijing, in a small and crowded room above one of my favorite bars. They guy was very enthusiastic but didn’t seem to know much about the Chinese car market. I told him so much, at the bar after the event. Had they only listened to me! Anyway, it all came to nothing.

[Editor’s Note: Listen to Tycho. Got it. – JT]

Better Place Chery Riich G5 EV

Chery 1
Via: Sina.

Riich was a sub-brand under Chery Auto, making slightly more upmarket cars than the mainstream Chery brand. The Riich G5 EV was jointly developed with the aforementioned company Better Place, under an agreement signed in early 2010. It was somewhat of a rush job, or so it seemed. Chery said at the time that the battery pack was located in the car’s body, which was completely different than on Better Place’s other projects, where the battery was in the bottom. Body-based batteries don’t make for easy swapping. Chery made at least two prototypes, but nothing came of the project.

In 2013, Tesla set up a pilot project with a battery-swap version of the Model S. The project was shut-down in 2015, due to a lack of consumer interest, according to Tesla. In 2021, rumors spread in Chinese media that Tesla China was setting up a battery-swap company. Tesla strongly denied, even saying that battery swap technology was “riddled with problems”.

Battery swapping in China

Many car brands, utility companies, and battery makers are entering the battery-swap market. After some initial hesitation, it now seems that almost every car brand is developing battery-swap cars. In China, there are two kinds of swapping networks: The first is a mixed model, where a car maker and a non-car making company jointly operate a swapping station network. The second is a model where a non-car making company operates a swapping station network, and cooperates with multiple car makers. The non-car making company may be a battery maker, utility company, or a new entity set up specifically for battery swap operations. According to company statements, added up, there are currently some 1500 battery swapping stations in China. These are stations for passenger cars (including taxis) and exclude specialized stations for trucks, delivery vehicles, buses, and two-wheel vehicles. But there are is a whole lot more coming. In 2025, companies plan to have some 20.000 swapping stations in operation in China.

Policy

Policy matters, especially in China, where the central and local governments make policy development plans by the dozen. You may call it a planning-industry. The cars themselves are covered by the various NEV plans (see my earlier hydrogen article), but battery swapping is also covered by a separate plan, called Implementation plan for promoting the renewal and upgrading of key consumer goods and smooth resource recycling (2019-2020). The plan comes directly from the State Council, China’s central government, giving it considerable importance. As the name implies, the plan is about all sorts of consumer goods, calling for more technological development and for more recycling to save money and the planet. When it comes to battery-swap, the plan calls for:

  • Promote new energy vehicle (NEV) battery leasing.
  • Encourage enterprises to develop new energy vehicles that combine charging and replacement [swapping].
  • Standardize and reduce battery costs.
  • Promote the research and development of … … charging and replacing [swapping][of batteries of] new energy vehicles.

Quick reminder: in China, the term New Energy Vehicle (NEV) refers to EVs, PHEVs, and FCEVs.

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The MIIT plan, front page.

A second important plan was compiled by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), an entity tasked with researching and implementing China’s industrial development strategy. In November 2021, MIIT launched a battery-swap pilot program. It had a pretty name too: “Notice on starting the pilot work of the application of the battery swap mode for new energy vehicles.” Many plans in China start with the word ‘notice’ or ‘paper’, indicating the actual implementation is still a  work in progress. The plan called for:

  • Battery swap pilot projects (all vehicles) in Beijing, Nanjing, Wuhan, Sanya, Chongqing, Changchun, Hefei, and Jinan.
  • Battery swap pilot projects (trucks) in Yibin, Tangshan, and Baotou.
  • Goal 1: 100,000+ battery swap vehicles and 1,000+ battery swap stations in the pilot project areas.
  • Goal 2: [the pilot project areas] will save 700,000 tons of fuel per year and reduce carbon emissions by 2,000,000 tons per year.
  • Strengthening the research and development of key battery swap technologies, including: vehicles, batteries, and battery-swap infrastructure.
  • Standards: formulate and revise standards for battery replacement safety, battery replacement interfaces, standardized battery boxes, and modular batteries.
  • Encourage local governments to introduce policies to support the application of battery-swapping vehicles.
  • Launch financial and insurance products suitable for the development of battery-swapping models.

A few interesting points: the Chinese government is funding research into battery swapping, pushing the creation of standards to support battery swapping, and local governments are explicitly encouraged to launch their own projects. This is different from the plans for hydrogen, where, as we have seen, local governments were discouraged from launching large local hydrogen projects. It should also be noted that the plan doesn’t forbid other cities to develop battery-swap projects. It is just that the chosen ones get extra government support.

Wuhan
The Wuhan plan.

To give an example of how this plan by the central government gets implemented at the local level, we travel to Wuhan, capital of Hubei province and, sadly, nowadays best known for a certain wet market. Anyway, the local government got to work and penned an implementation plan called “Wuhan City New Energy Vehicle Battery Swap Mode Application Pilot Implementation Plan (2022-2023)”. The plan calls for:

  • 18.000 battery-swap vehicles and 100 swap stations by the end of 2023.
  • Formation of standards for battery swapping.
  • Establish a green recycling system.
  • All new vehicles for taxis and online car-hailing are encouraged to use battery-swapped new energy vehicles.
  • Explore the application scenarios of battery-swapped new energy vehicles in the fields of public transportation, municipal administration, public affairs, ports, and logistics.
  • Support battery swapping for private cars through the “separation of vehicle and electricity” marketing model.

The plan then details how these targets will be reached, when, and where. And all of that has to be done by the end of 2023. The other pilot cities have similar programs; add them all up and that’s a whole lot of new battery-swap vehicles and stations.

Early battery swap projects

A word on swapping times: as one may expect, operators of swapping stations try to outdo one another concerning swapping times. Some are a bit more honest than others. Most operators count the entire process: driving in, positioning the car, swap the battery, and drive out. This usually takes between 2.5 and 5 minutes. Other operators, however, only count the time for the actual swap, which can be as little as 20 seconds. What is fair? Well, who knows. Just keep it in mind.

2008: Honorable mention: Beijing Institute of Technology

Bus 1
Via: BIT.

Technically not a passenger car so it doesn’t really count, but I give it an honorable mention because it was the first serious battery-swap project in China for road-going vehicles. In 2008 China held the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The concept behind the games was sloganized as “Green Olympics, High-tech Olympics, and People’s Olympics”. In China, such slogans are to be taken seriously, and are usually backed with large pots of money to develop new stuff and concepts. One thing that came out was a batch of electric buses with swappable batteries. In 2008, electric vehicle development in China was still in its infancy, so at the time the buses were seen as quite an achievement. They were developed by the Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT) and the Beijing Public Bus Corporation (BPTC). Some 50 units were built, ferrying athletes and spectators to and from the various Olympic venues. After the Olympics, the buses were added to the regular Beijing bus fleet.

2010: State Grid with Zotye and Haima

The first large battery swap project for passenger cars launched in 2010. State Grid is China’s main state-owned electric utility corporation. In 2010 they launched a battery swap project in cooperation with two car makers: Zotye and Haima. The battery packs were standardized, so they fitted in both the Zotye and the Haima cars. First, they developed a series of prototypes, and then they launched a pilot taxi project in the city of Hangzhou with 500 cars. Zotye is one of China’s smaller car makers. In recent times, they were best known for their infamous Zotye SR7, a clone of the Porsche Macan. But back in the 2000’s they were in a better place. They had bought the rights to various older Fiat cars, including the second generation Fiat Multipla, which was renamed Langyue.  Over the ensuing years, they developed LPG versions, various EV variants, and the battery-swap version with State Grid. Nowadays, Zotye makes a series of cool electric minicars that were dutifully cloned by China’s LSEV makers.

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Zotye Langyue battery swap cars. Via: State Grid (2010).

The technology was in its infancy at the time, and so was battery technology in general. The battery pack was located under the rear bench and the electric motor was in the front. For the swap, the bench was folded away, the battery pack taken out manually, and a new pack put in. The process took some five minutes. The 80V-60Ah batteries were provided by State Grid. There were 4 batteries in each vehicle. One battery was 726mm long, 220mm wide, 282.5mm high, and weighed 65kg. Under the scheme, State Grid would rent out the batteries to customers.

Haima 1

Haima is another of China’s smaller automakers. They started in 1991 as a joint venture between Hainan Auto and Mazda, hence the Haima name. When this joint venture ended, FAW bought Hainan Auto in 2006, they took away the lucrative joint venture and renamed it FAW-Mazda. However, the Haima name remained and that company started making cars based on older Mazda platforms. One of those was the Haima Freema, based on the first generation Mazda Premacy. It was this car that Haima chose for the State Grid battery swap project. The battery pack was the same as in the Zotye, but it was located in the cargo compartment rather than under the rear bench. The photo shows how the battery packs were swapped: with a robotic arm that was operated by two gentlemen, wearing helmets, because one can never know. The four batteries were swapped in and out one by one.

The taxi project

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The taxi project started in 2011 in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Province. The taxi’s were painted in yellow and gray. On the photo: a Zotye Langyu taxi, followed by three Haima Freema’s, followed by another Zotye. The pilot project involved the city government, local energy companies, State Grid, and both car makers. Pricing was the same as with an ordinary gasoline taxi. For the project, State Grid constructed an initial 4 swapping stations, and at the time announced they would build another 200 before the end of 2012. But that never happened.

State Grid

Just a few years later the project was shut-down. At the time, there was no further government support and most car companies focused their EV development on traditional charging. On the photo one of the Hangzhou swapping stations, fenced off and used as a parking lot for buses.

2015: BAIC BJEV taxi project

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Via inewenergy.

After 2010 things stayed quiet for a long time. Car makers focused on petrol-powered cars and, when it came to EVs, on traditional charging. But in 2015 BAIC started to get seriously involved in the battery swapping business. Not with the fancy C71EV but with one thousand Beijing EV200 battery-swap taxis in… Beijing. In China companies often have names referring to their home city, which may lead to some confusion.

The taxis were manufactured by BAIC BJEV, an EV-making subsidiary of BAIC. The EV200 battery swap taxi was based on the, hold on, BAIC BJEV EV-Series, which in turn was based on the gasoline-powered Senova D20, which was based on the Beijing Auto E-Series, which was based on the 2004 Smart Forfour/Mitsubishi Colt twin that was made in the Netherlands. Chinese car makers know how to milk a platform to the absolute max!

The taxis operated in the suburbs of Beijing, using some 200 swapping stations. At the time, I lived in such a suburb and there was a swapping station not that far from my home. A swap took 4 minutes and the cars had a range of 220 kilometers. The project was a success and the taxis remained in service until 2020.

2016: Lifan – Yifeng Energy

Lifan 1
Via: Sina Auto.

In 2016 automaker Lifan started an interesting battery-swap project. Lifan too is a relatively small Chinese car company. They became somewhat famous outside of China in 2008 when they launched the Lifan 320, a car that looked a tad too much like the Mini, albeit with five doors instead of three. At the time, Mini’s own five-door version was still some years away, so Lifan was revolutionary, one may say.

The car was a modified variant of the electric version of the Lifan 320. The project was aimed at the passenger car market, with the main aim ws to lower the purchase price of the EV version. At the time, the petrol version of the 320 sold for max 60,000 yuan, the EV version for 100,000 after subsidies. Lifan said the battery swap version would cost “tens of thousands of yuan” less than the normal EV version.

The company that operated the swapping stations was Yifeng Energy, fully owned by Lifan. The batteries were located under the car’s floor and the swapping process was partially robotic and partially manual. Lifan had properly grandiose plans, including a 3-story swapping station able to make 2000 swaps a day, with solar panels on the roof. That never materialized, but Lifan did build several smaller stations that could swap 200 batteries a day. The promising plan never got off the initial stage, but Lifan didn’t give up on the technology, as we will see later on in this story.

2016-today: Aulton

Aulton

Aulton is an important player in the battery swapping business in China. They were founded as an EV-technology company in 2000 and are based in Shanghai. In 2016, they started building their first swapping stations. Aulton is basically a service provider; building the stations and running them, but it doesn’t make or own the batteries. Aulton claims it has 630 stations in 37 cities, that it has a current swapping capability of 50.000 cars, and that it will have 10.000 swapping stations in China by 2025. Aulton says it can do a battery replacement for passenger cars in 20 seconds. The company works with various Chinese car makers, including BAIC, GAC, SAIC, FAW, Changan, and Voyah. These projects mainly concern taxi and ride hailing projects. There is standardization underway; Aulton works with some of its partners to create an interchangeable battery pack, where cars of different brands can swap batteries in any order.

In November 2021, BP China, a subsidiary of oil & gas company BP, took a stake in Aulton, and the companies announced a joint venture for building swapping stations. Other shareholders and co-investors include BAIC, Softbank Energy, NIO Capital, and Sinopec. Aulton is expanding abroad as well, with a joint venture in Germany called INFRAMobility-Dianba, which runs a single pilot swapping station in Berlin, using China-made Changan taxis.

BAIC BJEV & Aulton

Baic2

Besides operating a taxi fleet under their own name with their own swapping station, BAIC BJEV also teamed up with Aulton for yet another taxi project. This kind of trying out different business models, alone or with partners, is quite common in China when it comes to new technologies. The partnership between Aulton and BAIC BJEV started in 2016 and continues until today. The joint venture operates a 3500 unit taxi-swap fleet in four cities, it is by far the largest taxi-swap fleet in China. The taxi is a Beijing BJEV EU Battery Swap, based on the EU-series of electric sedans, which was based on the gasoline-powered Shenbao/Senova D50, which was based on the Saab 9-3. It has 136 hp and a range of 300 kilometers. A swap takes under 3 minutes. It costs 79,800 yuan plus a monthly fee. This fee includes the battery swap and electricity: 432 yuan per month for 1200km mileage; 630 yuan per month for 1800km mileage; and 1020 yuan per month for 3000km mileage.

Chinabatswap Screengrab

Here’s a link to a video of the process in action. We currently can’t embed videos from the Chinese video-sharing site Bilibili, so hopefully you won’t mind clicking a link.

Battery swap today – an overview in alphabetical order. 

As always, there are way too many projects going on to include them all. This overview is about the most famous, the most buzzed about, and the most interesting. I estimate that It covers about one-third of all ongoing battery-swap passenger car projects in China.

Aiways

Aiways 1
Airways U5 in front of a Bluepark swapping station. Via Aiways.

Aiways is one of China’s new EV startups, founded in 2017. They are selling two EVs in China and they are exporting to various European countries. As if they don’t have enough on their plate, they have moved into swapping too. They created a battery swap version of the Aiways U5, an electric crossover with a 204 hp motor and a 503 km NEDC range. They teamed up with two swap-station operators: BAIC BJEV Bluepark and Evogo (see below), and they are planning to set up their own battery-swap company. The cooperation with BAIC BJEV Bluepark is most concrete, with plans for 20.000 ride-hailing cars in 17 cities with 200 swapping stations by 2025. Later on, the company will also offer the U5 battery swap version to private buyers.

BAIC BJEV Bluepark

Bluepark

In 2021, aforementioned BAIC BJEV decided to move some of its assets to a new company called BAIC BluePark New Energy Technology. This company sells the Arcfox EV brand and the EVs of the Beijing brand. They also develop their own batteries and, you guessed it, run yet another network of swapping stations. But there is a difference: The stations jointly operated with Aultan only work with the taxis, whereas the BluePark stations are open to other brands. So for those other brands, Blue Park functions as an operator. The BluePark stations are run by a subsidiary called Blue Park Smart Energy, which recently announced a cooperation agreement with Mitsubishi and Bosh.

CATL Evogo

Evogo 2

CATL is the largest NEV battery maker in the world, supplying basically the entire Chinese electric truck sector and a large part of the electric car sector. No wonder they are interested in battery swapping too, and for that they founded a new company called Evogo. This is an operator and battery leasing business, where the ownership of the batteries remains with CATL. For its battery-swap batteries, CATL uses its cell-to-pack technology, where the battery cells are directly integrated into the battery pack, without having to use a module. The technology has obvious advantages for battery swapping, as it reduces the number and size of parts that need to be swapped.

Evogo 4

It also allows CATL’s swappable battery packs to be highly modular, using standard-sized battery blocks. These blocks are called Choco-SEB. Choco for chocolate [Editor’s Note: Wait, what? – JT] and SEB for Swapping Electric Block. Heavy vehicles may use several blocks, whereas a smaller can may do with one. But the blocks are all of the same size. This, in turn, makes swapping different vehicles in the same station a whole lot easier, even when the batteries are located in different places (but it has to be in the bottom). CATL claims their battery pack theoretically fits in 80% of the world’s electric cars. That surely sounds impressive, but of course these car makers need to make them fit first.

Evogo 3

Each ‘chocolate block’ packs 26.5 kwh of energy, good for an average range of 200 kilometers. CATL charges 399 yuan ($62) per month per block. This price includes the swapping operations and the energy. The first company to make a deal with Evogo was FAW:

FAW

First Auto Works (FAW) is one of China’s oldest and largest car makers. They own the Hongi, Bestune, and Jiefang brands and operate joint ventures with Mazda, Toyota, and Volkswagen. FAW makes numerous electric cars including a 405 kW electric Hongqi SUV that sells for 101,000 USD. FAW makes two battery-swap cars, both for taxi projects.

Bestune 1

Bestune, formerly known as Besturn, is a brand with an odd history. They started out making cars combining Mazda and Volkswagen technology, borrowed from FAW’s joint venture partners. But in recent years they are launching ever more advanced gasoline and electric vehicles with pretty design impressive specs. The Bestune NAT, aka E05, is a compact battery-swap electric car specifically developed for the taxi and ride hailing markets, it has a 135 hp motor and a range of 430 km NEDC. It uses the CATL Choco-SEB battery system and the swapping stations are operated by Evogo. Companies run two pilot programs; one with three battery swap stations in Hefei City, and another one with four stations in Xiamen City. That may seem small but Evogo wants to add another 50 stations in these two cities before the end of this year.

Hongqi 2

FAW’s second battery swap car is the Hongqi E-QM5. Hongqi, or Red Flag, is best known for their state limousines but today they make a somewhat strange mix of small and large gasoline and electric vehicles. The Hongqi E-QM5 is an electric sedan originally developed for the taxi market, but the company recently launched it on the private market too. The taxi version has 136 hp and a range of 431 kilometers. The battery-swap taxi project is in Jilin City in northeastern China, a cold place normally not super suited for EVs. It is a cooperation with Aulton, which operates the swapping stations. The project started in November 2021 with 200 taxis and 20 swapping stations, with plans for a total of 5000 vehicles and 44 stations by the end of this year.

An article in Chinese media asked a local taxi company that uses these taxis to calculate the savings compared to an old-school gasoline taxi. After all was included, the swap-taxi costs 0.3 yuan per kilometer, and the stinkin’ gas car costs 0.4 yuan per kilometer. That may seem a small saving for so much trouble but I guess it matters if you have a taxi business with thousands of vehicles.

Here’s a video of the station in action.

Changan EV

Changan
Thumbs up for the taxi! Via Aultan.

Changan EV is an NEV-making subsidiary of Changan Auto. They make small and medium-sized EV and PHEV cars, and recently launched the Shenlan brand, which is developing an FCEV as well. Their bread-and-butter electric sedan is the Changan Eado EV 460, a compact sedan with a 100 kW motor and a 460 kilometer NEDC range. In the summer of 2021, Changan launched a battery-swap version of the Eado EV 460, in a joint venture with Aulton. A swap takes just one minute. It is a relatively small-scale project, with 100 taxis and 20 swapping stations. But ambitions are sky high, as always, with Aulton saying it’ll have 200 stations in Chongqing by 2023.

Neta

Neta
Via: Xchuxing.

Neta is a new Chinese EV maker, selling various electric cars including the stylish Neta S sedan. Their battery-swap car is based on the Neta U, a compact crossover with max 231 hp and 610 km [Editor’s Note: Crap, that’s 374 miles! Pretty good! – JT] NEDC. The battery-swap version is developed for the taxi market. The first pilot project started in January in Jinan City. The stations are operated by Aulton and a swap takes one minute. By the end of this year, companies plan to have 100 swapping stations in business.

NIO

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A NIO ES6 SUV and a swapping station. Via NIO.

NIO is probably the main driver behind battery swap technology for passenger cars in China. The company was founded in 2014 and their first battery swap operations began in 2018. NIO claims it has 1011 swapping stations in China right now. In June 2022, NIO opened its first swapping station abroad, in Norway, with more stations scheduled to open in other European countries including Sweden and the Netherlands. The swap is fully automatic. Upon arriving at the station, the driver clicks a button in an app, and the car rides itself into the station, the battery gets swapped, and the car rides out again.

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NIO sells six cars in China, all battery-swap enabled. Customers can buy a car the traditional way, with full ownership of the battery. Or they go for NIO’s Battery as a Service (BaaS) program, which allows customers to use the swapping station network. The difference is pricing is significant, but monthly payments are steep. Let’s take the new NIO ET5 for example. Price of the 75 kWh battery version including the battery is 328,000 yuan. Price with BaaS is 258,000 yuan, with a monthly leasing/service fee of 980 yuan ($146 USD). The monthly price usually includes a set number of free swaps per month, but the energy is not free. The 70,000 yuan price difference translates to $10,450, which is surely a notable number but probably not enough to be a decisive factor in going for BaaS.

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NIO swappable battery.

A NIO swapping station has about the size of three parking lots. But they also need space at the front and at the rear to let cars go through. That’s a whole lot more than a charging pile! Building such large structures inside cities, where NIO would like to have them most, is no easy matter. Chinese cities are packed to the max as they are.

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Happy faces. Middle, shaking hands: Zhang Yuzhou (l), chairman of Sinopec, and William Li (Li Bin)(r), Chairman and CEO of NIO.

In 2021 NIO partnered with state-owned oil & gas company Sinopec to build charging infrastructure. Just one year later, the combination claimed it had built 175 stations, including 71 battery swap stations. Sinopec has some 30,000 gas stations in China, basically everywhere, from city centers to highways, from city to countryside. Sinopec is therefore an attractive partner for EV companies, and they also signed a cooperation agreement with Aulton.

On June 28, the infamous short-sell research outfit Grizzly Research published a report accusing NIO, among other accusations, of being creative with the books concerning their battery leasing operation in China. The leasing operations are run by a separate company called Mirattery, or Weineng in Chinese. NIO hasn’t fully denied or explained the accusations, only releasing a short statement saying the report had it all wrong. I’d love to do a deep dive into this interesting matter but this article is getting a little too long already.

Ruilan Auto

Ruilan Auto is a joint venture between Geely Auto and Lifan. We met Lifan earlier on with their Yifeng Energy project. In 2020, the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group took a controlling stake in Lifan. Ruilan Auto is thus an ‘internal joint venture’.

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Ruilan Auto Maple 60S and 80V.

Ruilan Auto makes cars under two brands: Livan and Maple. Their battery-swap lineup consists of two cars, and two more will be launched later this year. In the near future, Ruilan will launch a series of battery-swap delivery vehicles and light trucks. Their current cars are aimed at the taxi and ride hailing markets but their upcoming cars are intended for the general passenger car segment. Both current and some of their upcoming cars are based on older gasoline-powered Geely’s. However, the Geely Group is developing the new Global Battery Rapid Change (GBRC) platform, specifically for battery swap cars. The first car to use that platform will be the new Livan RL7.

Ruilan 1

The Maple 60S sedan and 80V MPV use the same 52 kWh ternary lithium-ion battery pack, located under the floor,  attached to the car with nuts and bolts. Max range is 415 kilometers for both. They use the same motor too, mounted at the front, with 136 hp  and 230 Nm.

Price wise, the battery-swap option seems very tempting. Let’s take the Maple 80V as an example. It is available as a standard EV with a battery, for 149,800 yuan. The battery-swap version, with a battery-subscription package, costs only 89,800 yuan. Monthly fee for leasing the battery is 798 yuan per month ($120 USD). That is not all. The actual battery replacement costs money too: 1.2 yuan/kWh for used energy, and 0.2 yuan/kW for unused energy. So if you want to swap your 52 kWh battery after ‘consuming’ only 40 kWh, you pay 40×1.2 + 12×0.2 = 50.4 yuan. Better run ‘em dry!

Ruilan 2

The swapping stations are operated by a separate company called E-Energee, which is owned by the Geely Group. The swapping process is fully automatic and can take as little as a minute, according to the company.

SAIC

Roewe

SAIC, previously known as Shanghai Auto, is another one of China’s largest car makers. They sell cars under the Roewe, MG, Maxus, and IM brands and have joint ventures with GM and Volkswagen. In 2021 they launched their first battery-swap car, the Roewe Ei5 Battery-swap, based on the standard Roewe Ei5 EV, a cool compact electric wagon powered by a 184 hp motor and a 501 km NEDC range. The battery-swap project is a cooperation with Aultan, which operates the swapping stations. It is a relatively small project, with 100 taxis and 12 battery swap stations. However, companies plan for 3000 taxis and 50 stations in the near future. The entire swap takes one minute.

Total Recap

As always, there is a lot going on. NIO is clearly betting its future on battery swapping, but right now, they are the only company offering battery swaps for regular passenger cars. For now, there don’t seem to be any other car makers that want to follow NIO’s example. All the other ongoing projects concern taxi or ride hailing projects. Battery swaps make a lot of sense for taxis, as any second that they don’t move cost money. Things might change if concepts like Evogo gain more traction, where it is relatively easy for car makers to develop battery-swap car due to the standardized battery packs. But even so, there is yet just one taxi-taker for Evogo.  Does battery swapping in China have a future? It certainly has, but mainly for specialized sectors like the taxi business, the delivery business, and the transport sector.

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41 Responses

  1. // The swapping process itself can be partially manual, partially robotic, or fully robotic.

    um

    Are the partially manual swaps assisted by something other than robots? Are the partially robotic swaps assisted by something other than humans?

  2. Even in a communist country like China where everyone is supposed to be all in for the greater good, I think there will be the classic problem of the “tragedy of the commons” spirit with swappable batteries.

    Now, I’m NOT a proponent that everything must be privately owned. But in the “free world” there is the classic example of our rental cars. Nobody gives a shit about the next driver as long as we can get away with beating the hell out of any rental car.

    Since nobody really “owns” a specific battery pack, then there is the incentive for these swappable shared batteries to get beat to hell and the quality falls to the lowest common denominator. Drivers, car manufacturers, battery swapping companies, etc. will find the cheapest way to wring out every last cent regardless of battery performance.

    1. // Since nobody really “owns” a specific battery pack, then there is the incentive for these swappable shared batteries to get beat to hell

      How would the battery pack get beaten to hell? Nothing mechanical to abuse. It’s not quite the same thing as a rental car where, as you said, people can drive like morons, over-revving, flatspotting tires, stomping on the brakes, etc.- but with a battery, what is there to beat up? Users won’t even be able to charge them improperly, as that will ostensibly be taken care of at the charging station…

    2. I don’t know if it’ll be that bad solely because people already treat batteries like shit. I don’t think many EV owners will treat their batteries any better than the ones in cellphones or anything else. They’ll charge them to 100% the fastest way possible even if they don’t need the speed, they’ll leave them plugged in every moment they’re at home and they’ll run them to 0% without a care. As long as the vehicles have decent thermal limits for the batteries I think they’ll see about the same level of abuse whether subscription or privately owned.

      Now if someone has hacked their system to allow a massive discharge and damn the risk of an unquenchable lithium fire then all bets are off but hopefully the batteries have control systems of their own that wouldn’t allow that.

    3. It’s amusing you start by charitably giving socialism the benefit of the doubt

      But to your main points- you’re right, swapable batteries will in the direction of the lowest common denominator.That’s what humans do.
      Happily though it’s likely the numbers people can measure *everything* involved in battery use, and put a cost figure on it. These could be displayed in the car and/or app so the driver knows how to minimize cost (and thus maximise battery life)

    4. We can get away with abusing a rental car, but the actual fact is that almost nobody who rents a car actually does abuse them.

      I still agree that there’s potential for trouble when you’re not fully responsible for the things you use every day, but that’s why the battery leases aren’t done at cost: because some of the rental has to cover the average amount of excess wear incurred along the way.

  3. Why not both? Imagine an EV with say 200KM range for urban commuting. When you need to go further, you add or rent a temporary “range extender” battery pack. Don’t lug around the extra weight or maintain it when you aren’t using it. Just add it in for longer trips.

  4. Tycho, are the battery packs the same regardless of purchase method on NIO cars? If so, do they have a method for the subscription service to be adopted later?

    Swappable batteries seems like one of the few options that can allow BEVs to age gracefully on the used market, so I’m interested in how these implementation attempts work out.

    Great article!

    1. “Swappable batteries seems like one of the few options that can allow BEVs to age gracefully on the used market”

      Yes and no. It eliminates the up-front cost of batteries, but you’re still paying for them via the swap subscription. This essentially means your old beater is going to have a monthly payment for the rest of its life. It’s just a different model of paying for the same thing.

      1. But that monthly payment is also covering your fuel costs! I’m also very interested to see long-term how much maintenance will cost on pure electric cars. What? Wheel bearings, brakes, and tires, right? Oh:coolant changes—but no transmission to crap out!
        On the one hand, ICE is dirty: hot nasty output to deal with. On the other, in my day job in HVAC, I replace a LOT of electrical components. And on the gripping hand, my inner curmudgeon says, ‘Bah! All those screens & gizmos will be lucky to make it to 10 years without bricking the thing!’
        The road ahead is not a superhighway set in concrete, but a cowpath that meanders as individuals take different turnings: sometimes the new path becomes a main one for awhile.

        1. Again, yes and no. If people treat battery swaps as a way to avoid paying for electricity to charge their EV then the price of battery swaps is going up. We’re talking about for-profit businesses, so TANSTAAFL is in full effect here. You _will_ pay for the battery and electricity, it’s just a question of whether you pay the manufacturer/electric company directly or a third-party doing battery swaps.

          To be clear, I’m not opposed to EVs. I think they’re the only way we get off fossil fuels for transportation in a reasonable timeframe. I just don’t think battery swaps meaningfully solve the problem of battery degradation in older cars.

      2. Another thing you’re going to see is more catastrophic failure of HV connectors and cooling lines. I’d be avoiding anything used for this reason alone in a battery swap based system.

    2. Not really. What happens when the company that owns your leased battery decides to no longer support that model or goes out of business?

      An EV battery should easily last 20 years in a passenger car. By the time the battery degrades to the point it might need to be replaced the car is old enough that it makes more sense to repurpose the battery for stationary storage and send the unibody to the scrapyard. Really no different than a 20 year old Civic with a bad engine of transmission. It doesn’t economically make sense to fix the car and it goes to the scrapyard.*

      (*For the normal car owner that has to pay a mechanic for the work – not the tiny fraction of Autopians that do engine rebuilds for fun and own a fleet of 20 somewhat operational vehicles.)

  5. “It certainly has, but mainly for specialized sectors like the taxi business, the delivery business, and the transport sector.”

    This has always been my thought on it as well. A regular consumer is going to be burned on the idea the first time the swapped in battery is more degraded/provides less range than the outgoing battery. If I’m taking a 500 mile road trip and swap a brand new 300 mile range battery for a older 250 miler halfway through, I’m now stuck with that battery until the next time I take a road trip. Only vehicles that will swap regularly and average out the fluctuations will avoid this.

    1. I think that swappable batteries can possibly lead to some interesting issues. Say a battery service owns batteries and swaps them between several makes and models and finds that Car Company A’s cars tend to fry the batteries or have issues. What legal recourse is there? Whoever owns the batteries is going to have to keep extensive records and make sure that their property doesn’t get damaged.
      Things like propane cylinders work well for exchange because they are not very complex and are cheap to replace. Batteries are going to have a whole host of issues.

    2. This has always been one of my issues with battery swapping. People treat rental property…let’s be charitable and say “badly”. Just look at the rusted, dented state of many propane tanks at the swap station. There are probably ways to mitigate that, but it’s something I rarely see mentioned in articles about battery swaps.

  6. I spoke with the guy who was trying to import CODA to the US. We spoke about battery swapping and he told me the issue with that is it requires a lot more batteries to be in service that without swapping as there always needs to be excess batteries available at the stations. Being that the batteries cost a lot and the supply is constrained, this seems like am idea that is great but to soon for the market.

    1. Jeez, is CODA still a thing? We did a job for them a long while back, digitizing and modeling up some of the cars they were trying to get stateside….That was…man I don’t even know, 8-10 years ago?

  7. This sort of process could be really useful, especially if one of the varieties of high energy density but non-rechargeable batteries takes off. I believe there’s an aluminum based technology that can hold amton of power but has to be recycled when it loses charge. A battery swap system would be excellent for that type of battery.

    Also I wanted to mock the Chinese propensity for long over complicated names for legislation but then I remembered our bizarre habit of wanting the name of every bill to be an acronym even if that makes the name less intelligible. We’re no better.

    I am still wondering about the cover of that one plan. Why is a single car disconnected from that battery factory(?) that all the other vehicles are linked to? Does the owner live too close so they have to carry it home themselves? I just want to know if there’s any specific meaning behind the image or if an intern was told to show all the vehicles being connected to a central hub and this is the result.

  8. I’m not sure the benefits outweigh the costs. This will require a bunch of spare batteries. Batteries that could be put to use elsewhere. In addition the batteries are the major cost of an EV and if taken care of can last as long as a normal lifespan for a car on the road (12 years average right now). I think its better to keep them tied to the car. You can still replace the battery and recondition the car at that point if need be.

    On the flip side Tesla is making their batteries structural elements of the car now. Not sure we need that either. probably best to keep it replaceable if need be.

  9. I was actually going to simply complement the author on a great article, until I read some of the profoundly benighted commentary here in the comment section.

    I actually have a job teaching science to young doctors. I’m not going to waste my energy arguing with idiots in my spare time. Sometimes I wonder why I post on the internet at all.

    Most probably I’M THE IDIOT for doing it.

    Later homies.

  10. Getting to the raw basics with our electric vehicles “potential energy”, all we really want is a fresh set electrons. That’s it. Sometimes we try to over-engineer the wrong solutions.

    IF we can just use the same can and stuff in new electrons quickly and easily, then we’re off again. I believe most of the technological effort should be on super fast and efficient charging systems and making a better can to hold them.

    For the past 120 years, we’ve built a complete infrastructure that makes liquid fuel. It distributes well and allows vehicles to be refilled well. Nobody thought to build a system that exchanges a full tank of gasoline to replace an empty one.

    Technologies for moving electrons may be easier to make, distribute and refill into existing batteries rather than building an entire infrastructure to move just the “containers” that may be obsolete in 5 years anyway with new “containers.”

  11. Battery swapping in private passenger cars is literally the dumbest idea ever. Exactly zero upsides, all downsides. Stations are just going to buy dozens of $10,000 packs in the hopes that you drive by? In a world of dc fast charging, we’re talking 10 minutes vs 6 minutes to swap a battery, except no labor costs for the 10 minutes. Manufacturers are going to willingly give up EVERYTHING that differentiates them in the marketplace? Consumers are going to pay extra for the inconvenience of NOT being able to charge at home, or anywhere that doesn’t have a swapping setup?

    If this were a good idea, cell phones would have hot swappable batteries, and they don’t.

    1. Sure, it doesn’t make sense if you life in the suburbs with your own garage, but imagine living in a residential high-rise complex with a combination of parking lots, on-street parking and underground parking. Does everyone get their own charging point? Who maintains all of it and makes sure nobody installs an after-market “Super-Kwik Turbo-charger” that could start a chain-reaction of battery fires, turning the entire parking area into something a CSI Investigator would term “suspiciously crispy”? It would completely make sense to install a battery-swap station near the entrance or exit of the complex. 1000 households with (say) 500 vehicles between them would make economic viability. You don’t go looking for a station somewhere, you just go home, notice you’re a bit low on power and swap out a new battery before parking your car. The rooftops could all have solar panels to assist in charging up the batteries, and knowing that you are very likely to be using the same battery multiple times over its life means you’re less likely to abuse it. Manufacturers don’t complain that there’s basically only two types of bang-liquid to put into vehicles, so there’s no real reason why they should complain if there’s only a couple of electron-bucket types to choose from either 🙂

      1. “if this were a good idea, cell phones would have hot swappable batteries, and they don’t”

        If this were a good idea, battery operated power tools. lawnmowers and chain saws would have hot swappable batteries, and they don’t. Oh wait….. they do.

  12. Only one catch: how is China charging all of these EVs?
    More than 97 gigawatts of newly constructed, unregulated coal-fired power plants and another 100GW+ of methane spewing natural gas power plants. Plus another 18+ coal-fired super-scale blast furnaces to produce materials for manufacturing. Putting them on track to increase their already record-setting climate change emissions another 1.5% in less than 12 months, despite COVID-19 severely curtailing growth and construction.
    China’s greenhouse gas emissions, by the way, already exceed every single ‘developed’ nation combined.

    Boy, that sounds real green, don’t it?

    1. Yes, it does. Considering that China still has a large population cooking and heating with coal stoves and a huge inventory of old inefficient coal plants that were built as local government make-work projects. Last read China’s coal plants were only generating about 50% of their installed capacity so it isn’t like they need to build new plants because they need more power. They are building plants to replace dirty and inefficient old plants.

      Then there is the fact that an EV running on coal power has less carbon emission and local emission than a gasoline car.

      China’s greenhouse gas emissions are a fraction of the “developed” world’s per capita – which is the only honest way to measure such things.

      1. And what do you think all these new coal fired power plants are? And your source for these statistics are who again?

        Oh ye of complete delusion and ignorance. You sweet summer child.

        Oh wait, you trotted out the tired and utterly disproven bullshit of “less carbon emissions than a gasoline car” which casually ignores – let me check my notes – 100% of the supply chain, electricity, charging infrastructure. Yes, EV batteries are just magically delivered to factories fully formed with absolutely no mountaintop removal or strip mining that dumps billions of gallons of arsenic and significantly radioactive waste.
        But hey, it only takes over 774km^2 (480 square miles) to produce 260,000lbs of tantalum and 155,000 short tons of spodumene per year. Which then has to be hauled over a thousand miles to be ground into dust, dried, run through very high temperature kilns, treated with vast quantities of sulfuric acid, which produces a fine, highly breathable, very toxic dust. Which then has to go through another long series of chemical processes involving fun things like arsenic, with an end result of less than 50,000t/year since most of the spodumene is simply thrown away.

        Yes. So very green and environmentally friendly. Look at the happy kangaroos frolicking in the million gallon toxic chemical drying pools. Goes great with the giant pandas splashing in the tailing ponds.

        1. Source for Chinese Coal-Plant Utilization rate – Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air – China Dominates 2020 Coal Plant Development

          “Since 2015, the average utilization rate of the countryʼs coal plants has been 50% or below, compared to a high of 61% in 2011.”

          There are plenty of other sources just search for China Coal Fired Utilization Rate

          Who said batteries magically appear? EVs are more carbon intensive to manufacture – they start with a carbon debt vs a gasoline car. However, the much lower carbon emissions in operation repay the debt rather quickly – usually within the first 25% of the vehicle’s useful life and from then on the carbon savings start adding up. According to Volvo their C40 EV requires 70% more carbon to manufacture than an XC40 but breaks even after 48,000 miles of driving when charged from the EU’s average power generation mix.

        2. “Yes, EV batteries are just magically delivered to factories fully formed with absolutely no mountaintop removal or strip mining that dumps billions of gallons of arsenic and significantly radioactive waste.”

          Do you think regular fossil fuels are mined cleanly? Like holy shit if you’re going to be condescending at least try to be vaguely correct.

  13. There is no way this would work for consumer vehicles. There are SO many reasons. Standardization is the big one and the sheer amount of batteries in circulation is another among many others. I just think about how difficult manufacturers have made it to do regular maintenance/minor repair on cars these days in the interest of making them easier to assemble and lighter/more compact for better fuel economy. They are pushing it even further with EVs. The capital required to buy/maintain all those batteries and swap stations as well as keep up with ever-changing tech would be staggering. And where do we find all the raw materials to build these battery packs? You would hold back advancement in tech which is sorely needed in EVs and no one would make any money running those stations. I LOVE the idea for the environmental impact having standard, easily removable packs would make, but I just don’t see it happening. Implementing it on semis or fleet vehicles would be much more practical, but you still have the issue of all the extra batteries in circulation. I think this is one of China’s big bets that will not pay out.

  14. That Hongqi E-MQ5 is one smug smilin’ M-Fer!

    Internet Observation (TM) aside, thanks for this, Tycho. The sheer number of different programs you present (and say is ~1/3 of actual) is impressive even considering China has 1 billion more people than the US. The pack with claimed 500km range caught my eye: that is enough even if rated at perfect-use case to cover the vast majority of people in real everyday weather (extreme northern residents excepted).

    I’m sure you’ll follow this, and would enjoy updates if possible on actual experiences from the privately owned cars doing swapping.
    This is Good Stuff

  15. I know this is a post about cars on a website that is primarily about cars, but I feel like a brief mention could have been made about battery swapping on the vehicles that are most prevalent in Asia – scooters.

    Many scooters are still smoke-belching 2-strokes, it would behoove governments to get those off the road. By nature, a scooter battery is smaller and lighter and can be swapped by hand by the owner/rider. Fresh batteries are dispensed from unattended vending machines; it’s a 2 minute swap. The whole thing is brilliant.

        1. Yes, that’s the charm. Also a warm can of Kirin and some cartoon stickers. They also insist you return the depleted batteries, empty beer can and underwear for “recycling”. If not, you get locked out of your account. You do get to keep the stickers FWIW.

    1. Saw this the other day:
      https://www.instagram.com/reel/CfjNoXkFAmu/?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=

      It’s an ebike power unit that bolts to the rear chainstay and provides force via the rear brake rotor, the idea being the whole unit comes with you to charge or store, so you’re not leaving an expensive ebike locked up outside in the weather, just a normal bike. Dunno how well it works but it’s a fascinating idea and I wonder how the concept would carry over to scooters.

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