China’s Nio’s approach to EV infrastructure

Juicing up an internal combustion vehicle is a service that remains far easier, faster and more accessible than filling up EVs with electrons for the road. Automakers for the EV movement respond by increasing charging power to reduce charging time, and that has remained at the epicentre of the EV-infrastructure dilemma, besides making them wide and plenty. That’s the American side of the innovation spectrum for the most part. The Chinese now apparently respond and tackle the situation a bit different than their western rivals.

Nio, a Chinese automaker, recently introduced the rather ambitious idea of subscription based swappable batteries. So you just swap out battery packs as you do with your Xbox controller? Well, no. You don’t do it. The ‘Nio BaaS’, meaning ‘Battery as a Service’ subscription model means that special Power Swap stations will allow owners to swap out batteries in a matter of minutes, with the option of different battery sizes in accordance to the subscription pack. Apparently, an average of three to five minutes is enough for you to be out with the old, in with the new, and hit the road.

There’s a couple of different perspectives to be considered with this entire model of swapping out batteries. For one, Nio’s aim is evidently to make the EV-refueling as tantamount, or at least as synonymous to refueling your traditional combustion vehicle in terms of it being convenient and seamless, which is criteria it fulfills. This has indeed been one of the myriad of problems the EV market faces currently, and on those terms, the Chinese company has made an avant-garde step to a solution, or an alternative. However, collocated to the problem of accessibility, once again, Nio falls short. Their battery-swapping technology has been available since 2014, and as of June 2020, the company had completed 500,000 battery swaps. But the widespreadability of the entire process seems questionable, and it doesn’t seem the western markets will adopt this method anytime soon. Of course, the spread of EV infrastructure is a gradual process, but this is an approach much exclusive to Nio at the moment, and thus doesn’t spell out a massive step towards solving the dilemmas of the EV movement.

You can’t have the cake and eat it too. Whichever one Nio is doing though, they’re not half-bad at it. Besides the advantageous side of seamless refueling, Nio augments to their pros list by selling cars without battery packs, and allowing customers to pick a subscription plan themselves, according to their needs. As per sources, they have been able to shave off more than $10,000 dollars from the sticker price. Currently, a 70.0-kWh pack with six swaps per month is priced at about $142. For those who don’t want to swap batteries but still need the pack, the cost is about $12 a month. This also means that there is prospect for customers being able to upgrade their batteries to a higher capacity one. Conceptually, the battery swapping approach seems near flawless.

“A battery-swapping facility is very expensive because it can take only one car at a time and you need to work in an automated fashion underneath the vehicle because of the dirt and snow, etc., that can get trapped in and around the undercarriage,” is what Volkswagen spokesperson Mark Gillies had to say. As mentioned before, the western world isn’t going to undertake such a strategy anytime soon, if they ever do that is. Only time will tell though, as paths diverge and intertwine to take the EV movement forward, ultimately the best ones will prevail to make way for the electric future.