Ample Devises Lego-style Battery Swapping System for EVs

Article By : Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

Ample has developed fully autonomous and automated systems that do not require the passenger to get out of the car to change components.

Charging electric cars in a few minutes, not hours, could be possible thanks to new technologies and battery swapping. This is Ample’s project. Ample is a Californian start-up and partner of Uber. The system devised by the company proposes the use of rapid autonomous battery swapping stations. In an interview with EE Times, Ample co-founders Khaled Hassounah and John de Souza described the approach as a Lego-style system allowing a driver to pull up, trade battery modules, and go.

“The coolest part is designed to recharge any electric vehicle (EV) from any automaker in <10 minutes,” the speakers said. The company has raised $70 million in funding led by Shell Ventures and joined by Repsol Energy Ventures and Eneos Innovation Partners, among others.

Using a combination of computer vision and wireless communication, the Ample station can identify the exact location of each battery module to be swapped. Once the discharged battery modules are removed from the car, they are placed on racks so that they can be charged and ready for the next vehicle.

Battery swapping
Over the next few years, many EVs are expected to be on the road, but a core challenge is creating the charging infrastructure that will make this easy, cheap, and as accessible as owning a gas-powered vehicle. Extended charging times are one of the main challenges for the spread of e-mobility. Today, recharging a car take far longer than refueling, from 30 minutes to a few hours for an electric vehicle compared to just a few minutes for a gas engine. Ample’s project, and those of other companies working on similar solutions, could finally reduce this gap.

The lithium batteries in electric cars still take a certain amount of time to recharge, depending on the capacity of the battery or the charging infrastructure available, whether we charge in AC or DC. For quicker recharging, there is the possibility of replacing the battery on the fly, an operation that takes much less time, but to perform this “Battery Swapping” operation, the battery housing on the car must be designed in a special way.

The swapping technique would replace recharging, thus eliminating long refueling times, one of the major limitations of zero-emission vehicles. This technique must be carried out at a specific station and with the right technology, however.

Figure 1: A modular battery architecture that allows for any EV to use Ample’s stations (Source: Ample). Click the image above the enlarge.

On the other hand, battery swapping is a solution to vehicle owners’ problem of what do do with batteries that inevitably lose their ability to store a charge. Consumers don’t need to worry about recycling those battery packs and the recycling will be done at the OEM company or by station operators who manage the swapping network, instead of going to landfill. Another advantage of this solution, which can be achieved in the medium to long term, is the possibility of renewing battery technology when existing batteries become obsolete or outdated.

Ample Technology
Ample’s technology has two major components:

  • A fully-autonomous swapping station that removes depleted battery modules from the car and replaces them with fully charged ones. The depleted battery modules are then placed on shelves where they are recharged.
  • A modular battery architecture that allows for any EV to use Ample’s stations. The batteries are made out of Lego-like modules that can accommodate any vehicle regardless of size or model. The swapping takes less than 10 minutes.

Ample has developed fully autonomous and automated systems that do not require the passenger to get out of the car to change components. The system is already capable of handling the battery packs of “numerous cars.”

“The goal is to have an impact on the whole decarbonization and reduction of greenhouse gases. And the natural starting point was transportation, that is one of the main causes. There is a huge transformation going on. We are moving away from a non-green energy source towards electric cars.  We realized very quickly that if you want to have a big impact, you need to put at least a billion electric cars on the market. And the problem is not the car. It’s the infrastructure: when you have many cars, how do you charge all these cars? The idea behind our start-up is battery exchange. We wanted a solution that was fast, convenient and cheap. We wanted it to work across different types of cars through any OEM. And we wanted this to be fast to deploy and affordable,” said the speakers.

Today’s biggest challenge is to recharge the battery in the shortest time. Powering high energy into the grid requires a rethink of how energy is distributed in the grid. That is, we need an intelligent grid that knows how to direct energy. But at the same time, it is essential to compensate for all the peaks that can occur in the grid at the same time. “In particular where the energy is, because your grid can be as smart as you want. At the end of the day, if everyone was demanding energy simultaneously, you would need to supply it. And the biggest challenge with that kind of dependent renewable energy, like wind or solar, is full control over the generation,” said the speakers.

Ample’s idea in practice is to offer a very quickly charged battery for replacement, then provide a slow recharge while keeping the battery safe for use in another electric vehicle. In fact, Ample’s solution separates delivering energy to an electric vehicle and the actual charging of the battery allowing for a more streamlined access to the grid. It also makes it possible to move to renewable sources of electricity since charging can now happen when those forms are available.  “In this way, we contribute better to the development of the network by choosing certain times of the day to charge the battery,” said the speakers.

battery swapping
Figure 2: Ample Station (Source: Ample). Click the image above to enlarge.

As mentioned, an Ample EV battery is made up of battery modules that can fit any make, design, model or driving profile – from commuting to ridesharing, municipal and corporate fleets to last-mile delivery, even autonomous. Ample stations require no construction. With a small footprint equivalent to two parking spaces, the station is built on top of the ground and can use renewable energy like wind and solar that has been stored in the stations that supply the electricity for the batteries. The stations can be placed wherever they’re needed; in petrol stations, grocery shops or on the side of the road.

“Our advantage is that we can create infrastructure very quickly, at a low cost. Today, if you build slow chargers you gain in cost but lose in charging time. If you build fast chargers, they are very expensive and you lose the market. We can vary the size of the battery by meeting time and duration requirements. So, if you drive a small number of miles a day, you don’t need a 200-mile battery, you can put a smaller battery in your car because we put fewer modules. And then later, if one day this car needs to go further, we put more modules so we can dynamically change the size of the battery, which reduces the cost,” said the speakers.

They added, “our batteries are intelligent in the sense that when you put them in a car, they know exactly which car they are in and adjust the voltage level to match what the car expects to see.”

For mission-critical applications, we need to be 100% sure that we know the wired sensor voltage. “For example, the way our car connects is completely wireless, and how that’s the way we also orchestrate where the robot is moving, the plate is unlocking, etc., but also importing the battery status to the pod as it’s being swapped, doing all the security monitoring, etc. All this is wireless. So we try to find the right middle ground between wired and wireless, in the sense that we do wireless where we get a huge advantage and wired where it’s very mission-critical,” said the speakers.

Ample believes swapping will be popular with fleet managers, delivery, service and taxi drivers. They drive hundreds of miles a day and don’t want to wear out their batteries by rapidly charging them at every turn. The co-founders also said that swapping should allow used electric vehicles to stay on the road, performing perfectly and longer, rather than turning into e-waste.

Ample is now operating five battery swapping stations in the San Francisco Bay Area specifically for Uber drivers. Participating drivers with supported electric vehicles can swap a depleted battery for a fully charged one in less than 10 minutes. Right now, the stations have a maximum capacity of 90 cars per day.

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