If you buy an electric car from Nio, the Shanghai-based automaker often cited as the Chinese version of Tesla, you can now choose to buy it without a battery.
The company offers a “battery-as-a-service” option partly as a way to help consumers save money on the purchase price of its luxury cars. “One of the biggest barriers to the purchase of an EV is the cost,” says JoAnn Yamani, Nio’s director of communications. “We’ve seen electric vehicles range anywhere from $10,000 to $70,000 more than your standard internal combustion engine vehicle, and that’s simply because the cost of the battery is so expensive.”
Instead of paying for the battery in the cost of the vehicle, customers can pay for a monthly subscription to a service, roughly comparable to the cost of buying gas for an old-fashioned car. Whenever someone needs more power, they back the car into one of the company’s garages, and a machine automatically installs a freshly-charged battery. “Your depleted battery is popped out, and a refreshed, fully charged battery is popped in within three minutes,” she says. “And then you can just drive off. You don’t have to worry about sitting around waiting for your car to charge up.”
While electric car owners in the U.S. can often plug into a charger overnight if they have a house of their own, drivers in China are more likely to live in apartments that may not have chargers in a parking garage. And while fast chargers can top off a battery fairly quickly, a steadier charge over several hours is better for the battery. The swapping system is designed to be more convenient. Right now, Nio has a network of 178 battery swapping stations located in and between major cities such as Beijing and Shenzhen; by the end of the year, it plans to have 500 stations. (The company also plans to launch its cars in Europe soon, though it hasn’t announced how it will handle battery swapping there.) If a customer manages to run out of power and get stranded, they can use an app to ask the company to send a mobile charging unit to give a quick charge.
The concept of battery swapping isn’t new. Better Place, an Israel-based startup that raised nearly $1 billion in funding and had opened a small network of charging stations in Israel by 2012, filed for bankruptcy in 2013 after it failed to make the model a success. Tesla tested battery swapping and opened a station in 2013, but then abandoned the idea to focus on building a network of superchargers. Nio argues that now the time is right for the model to succeed. With Better Place, “It was kind of an idea before its time, because not a lot of people owned EVs at that time,” Yamani says. Still, within a few years, electric cars are likely to be as cheap to buy as cars that run on gas, so there may be less demand for a battery-less car based on cost. Charging is also likely to become more convenient. Nio’s option is interesting, but don’t expect it to become as ubiquitous as gas stations: The system works only with Nio cars, and because every other automaker works on their own unique electric cars, this type of infrastructure wouldn’t work universally.