Unlike The West, Battery Swapping Has A Future In India

Unlike The West, Battery Swapping Has A Future In India

What is the future--fast charging or battery swapping? The debate gathered popularity in 2011, when an Israeli start-up—Better Place—began offering battery swapping solutions to Electric Vehicle (EV) owners. Charging still took hours at the time, and the evolution to minutes was a decade away.

The narrative has evolved now. Charging has caught up significantly, tilting the scales towards fast-charging in the West; credit Tesla Inc., whose failed attempts at battery swapping led to the development of one of the largest fast-charging networks in the world. But in India, a different story is unfolding. To understand, a brief background on the debate is in order.

Fast-Charging v. Battery Swapping

Fundamentally, what matters is time and money. Let's talk time first - since 2011, battery technology has evolved at an exponential pace, bringing charging times down seven-fold. For instance, a Nissan Leaf could deliver 74 kms on a 30-minute charge in 2010, while a Tesla can deliver 282 kms in 15 minutes today. Battery swapping, on the other hand, can deliver 198 kms in 3 to 5 minutes (and 322 kms in 10 minutes), excluding the time taken to drive in and out of a swapping station. It is necessary, at this point, to factor in money--the cost of setting up swapping stations was considerably higher when Better Place failed. A reasonable bet is, both technologies will continue to evolve at a similar pace and cost--the miscellaneous time taken at a swapping station eliminates the advantage it has over fast-charging. Secondly, they can only handle half the traffic of charging stations, as each swapping station occupies the space of two cars but charges only one. As infrastructure improves and technology matures, DC charging stations are bound to get cheaper.Moreover, companies that manufacture vehicles for individual consumers have proprietary battery packs that integrate into the design of the vehicle.

The other side of the argument is, logistics management companies operating large fleets may find swapping more convenient, as each vehicle will cost at least 50% less if purchased without a battery, leading to lower capital investment and higher operating liquidity. However, a projected problem is traffic management--when large number of trucks need to juice up simultaneously during peak hours, swapping stations may prove inefficient.

India Is Different

The US neither has tuk-tuks for hire, nor a widespread two-wheeler rental business.

What this is essentially means is, expensive robots that unscrew sophisticated panels and lift heavy car batteries, are eliminated in full. Tuk-tuk batteries are light, accessible, and simple to figure. A driver can simply get off, slide out the battery by hand, and swap it with a fully charged one from a nearby kiosk.

At this point, let us factor in the socioeconomics of the Indian market. Most Indian tuk-tuk drivers are from economically disadvantaged communities, and often do not own the vehicles they drive (they rent it from a fleet owner on a daily/weekly basis). Even in circumstances where the tuk-tuk is self-owned, EMIs cut straight into earnings.

But with battery-less tuk-tuks costing significantly less, drivers can own their tuk-tuks and still make a decent profit. The rentals will cost significantly lesser too, as fleet owners can operate at scale, reducing their cost per vehicle.

The transition to battery swapping in India has already begun, with Bengaluru based Sun Mobility having set up 50 stations in 14 cities. It estimates bringing the cost of EVs down by 50% in a few years, and has successfully collaborated with Piaggio, Microsoft, Uber, Ashok Leyland, and Indian Oil (the swapping kiosks are available at Indian Oil petrol bunks) to offer its services.

Another e-mobility start-up, VA-YU, which began operations in May 2020, provides e-scooter rental services in the New Delhi-NCR region. In a year, its fleet has grown almost 8 times from 40 to 300--in spite of a multi-wave coronavirus pandemic. VA-YU claims a fully owned fleet and offers rentals starting at ₹950/week ($13). What's interesting is the founder, an IIM alum, chose swappable batteries over using a charging network!

A new addition to the Indian battery swapping market is Power Global--a Noida based clean energy and mobility services provider--which recently launched eZee, a swappable battery service for light vehicles.

The Story Forward

India's political and socio-economic realities are a stark contrast to the West. Its people have different aspirations, different needs, and widely varying problems, meaning solutions that work in the West are, in all probability, inapplicable here.

Its markets may have mimicked the West in the past, but that idea expired long ago. Battery swapping has a much brighter future in the country than anywhere else (China is an exception by default), and new age Indian entrepreneurs are not conservative innovators.

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Chinmaya Udghosh