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Today, we want to dive into a topic that is less common in the West, but extremely prevalent in the Far East, particularly China and Taiwan. Today, we’re going to focus on battery swapping.
Chinese automakers have yet to really make their mark in Europe and the US, in fact it’s believed that no homegrown Chinese car brand has ever been sold in the US, but 2022 is expected to be a watershed year for globalization of Chinese automotive products. In their wake they’re looking to bring innovations that could change the way we look at car ownership, EV charging infrastructure, autonomous tech, and more. The traditional model of electric vehicle charging is via the plug-in method, either via a home-charging unit or at a dedicated facility, and of course Wejo data is already being used to identify the ideal locations for such chargers, but this method comes with numerous challenges. Primary in this is the amount of time taken to charge a car which varies massively and requires the car to be out of action for anywhere between 30 minutes and several hours on average. It’s not exactly streamlined – the average gasoline car is filled in around two minutes – but it’s where EV technology is at currently.
For EV owners without the luxury of off-street parking (in the UK for instance, around one-third of homes have no access to off-street parking), this is the reality they face: living around their car’s needs, often to great inconvenience. This isn’t helped by the scarcity of charging bays, which are often fully occupied, have sketchy reliability, and operate various memberships depending on who owns the facilities.
However, a new method, one first discussed over a decade ago but lost in the initial lack of a customer base, is being resurrected to great effect over in China – and it’s on its way to Europe. NIO, often referred to as “China’s Tesla”, has been busy pioneering battery swap technology in their home market and recently revealed that they have installed 800 such stations in a network spanning the main highways and cities across the land.
NIO enables easy access to this through their Battery as a Service (BaaS) concept, whereby customers tend to buy the car and lease the battery via a subscription. This is fairly standard practice in electric vehicle sales and has the added benefit of reducing the purchase price of the vehicle, but for NIO customers, it unlocks access to quick battery swaps.
When a battery is depleted sufficiently, NIO owners are able to replace their depleted battery with a fully charged unit in just three minutes, not too dissimilar to the time taken to fuel a gasoline car from empty to full. Not only that but the autonomous features on NIO vehicles enable the cars to park themselves in the battery swap station and drive away once the process is complete, leaving owners free to do what they like in the short intervening period.
In Norway, the first European market to sell NIO vehicles, 92% of buyers have already signed up to the BaaS sales model despite only one battery swap station operating in Copenhagen. The company plans to offer 20 such stations covering Norway’s five largest cities and main highways by the end of 2022, by which point it will also have expanded into at least four other European markets.
This has similarities to the way Tesla complemented the sale of their vehicles with a widespread rollout of dedicated superchargers, generally at highway service stations and high-end hotels, and the parallels between the two brands are clear. As relative newcomers to the automotive world, and brands that have only ever produced electric vehicles, they’re widely perceived as being more akin to technology companies than car manufacturers. Their soaring valuations demonstrate a huge thirst for this kind of ambition: Recently Tesla’s company valuation briefly exceeded that of the next nine most valuable car makers combined, and NIO itself recently overtook both BYD and Great Wall Motors to become China’s most valuable car brand.
The same could be said of Taiwan-based electric scooter brand, Gogoro, who have been operating their own battery swap concept for several years. There, Gogoro riders in the major cities are rarely more than a couple of kilometers from a Gogoro battery station. Riders who are subscribed to the battery plan simply lift the batteries out of their scooter, place them into the battery wall, and two freshly charged batteries pop out ready to go back into the scooter.
And how do you think the best locations were found for the battery stations? By using the connected vehicle data from the armies of smart scooters zipping around Taiwan’s streets, of course, showing that small and cheap can also be smart and connected.
With NIO leading the battery swapping trend in the automotive world, the signs are already positive that it may be catching on. In the last week, CATL, the world’s largest manufacturer of power batteries, has launched its own EV battery swapping brand and station, and has showcased a platform whereby cars can choose between 1, 2, or 3 batteries, each adding a further 200km of range, that can be switched out seamlessly at a battery swap station. With CATL making products for many of the world’s largest automakers, it’s hard to see this trend not catching on in the wider market in the coming years.
Whilst it is tech-led companies that have the early advantage, there’s no reason why the more established OEMs, those more accustomed to producing gasoline engines and asset-heavy products, can’t replicate their success. Why? Because Wejo.
With our proprietary technology, demonstrated in the new EV Infrastructure OS (link to white paper) recently announced by Wejo and Palantir and already being demonstrated to great effect today, car makers can leverage the millions of data points their vehicles are producing every day and make data-led decisions that enhance their business and products. They don’t need to be a technology company already, nor significantly diverge from their core business that has been developed over the past century, because the tools and information that can enable them to match tech-native companies like Tesla and NIO is here today.
In addition, for Chinese automakers looking to establish their own charging infrastructure in Europe, including NIO with their battery swap stations and XPENG with their fast charger network, Wejo data is an ideal way to immediately understand local market behaviours without ever having sold a vehicle there before. Our connected vehicle data provides that head start.
On a wider note, the insight we can take from the success of both NIO and Gogoro (who by the way sold over 63,000 scooters in the first 11 months of 2021, 56,000 more than their nearest competitor) is that great innovation is being pioneered in Asia and should absolutely be on the radar of western brands, not least because they will be looking to compete in an increasingly congested automotive market in China, but because Chinese automakers have their sights set on Europe and the US too.
We’ll be looking to bring you further insights from the developing connected technology markets in the Far East over the coming months, so stay tuned.