More than a decade ago, a high-flying startup called Better Place made a billion-dollar bet that electric car drivers would prefer to swap depleted batteries for fresh ones in minutes rather than charge them for hours. At the time, most EVs had 75-mile ranges and chargers were slow, few and far between.
But soon after Better Place launched its battery-switching stations in 2012, Elon Musk unveiled a free fast-charging network that would serve Tesla drivers, then (and now) the most popular EV brand. Within months of Musk's announcement, Better Place went bankrupt, leaving investors including Morgan Stanley, General Electric and HSBC out more than $750 million. In the U.S., at least, battery-swapping seemed consigned to the technological graveyard.
It's back. Over the past two years, San Francisco startup Ample Inc. has quietly deployed more than a dozen robotic battery-swap stations around the Bay Area and in Europe. On an afternoon in May at an unmarked warehouse, the company previewed its next-generation swapping stations, at which a drained battery can be changed out for a charged one in about five minutes — half the time of its current stations.
Ample founders Khaled Hassounah and John de Souza established the company just one year after Better Place failed, but with a different business model and different battery-swapping technology. "We were going to do a better Better Place," says Hassounah, who is also chief executive officer. The company, which has raised $260 million since it launched in 2014, is initially targeting ride-sharing and delivery fleets that can't afford long downtimes to charge EVs.
"We're going to be a lot cheaper than fast charging," says Hassounah. "If you can charge at home, you should. But if you park on the street, if you live in a condo building or drive for a fleet, that's not possible."
Ample's demo station, which is white and yellow and emblazoned with the slogan "Electric cars for everyone," resembles a spacious drive-through car wash. When an employee drives up with a silver Kia Niro, a screen shows him where to park.
A platform then lifts the car a few feet off the ground, and a robot slides out and scans its underside to confirm the battery location and configuration. The bot rises up to the plate holding the battery pack, sends a signal to unlock it, removes the pack and scuttles back to the station's storage area to shelve the empty battery for recharging. It returns with a fresh battery and plugs it into the car. The platform lowers and the Niro drives off.
"We want to be the gas station of electric," says Hassounah.
Ample's swap station looks like a smaller version of the multimillion-dollar ones Better Place once deployed in Israel and Denmark. But Ample's modular structure costs less than $100,000, fits in a shipping container and can be deployed in three days, according to Hassounah. Since the company slow-charges its batteries, it does not need to go through the months-long process of installing expensive high-voltage infrastructure.