we tried “recharging” the batteries in five minutes and it’s great

When testing the Nio ET7 electric car, we were able to try the battery replacement system (Nio Power Swap Station), which allows you to “recharge” the batteries in five minutes. The result is amazing, we show you how it works!

We were invited by the Chinese manufacturer Nio to come and test drive its brand new electric car, the luxurious Nio ET7 sedan. The test was carried out in Germany, in the suburbs of Berlin, during an event which also formalized the Nio ET5 and Nio EL7 in Europe. On this occasion, we had the opportunity to test the brand’s battery swap stations called Nio Power Swap Station internally.

If you don’t know the principle, this is a new way to “recharge” the batteries in an electric car, very popular in China. The idea is very simple on paper: instead of using a charging station to recharge the battery, it is swapped for a “full” battery. Well almost, as the charging speed does not exceed 90% to increase battery life.

If this may seem simple in theory, in practice it is much more complicated for the manufacturer, which has been obliged to standardize all its batteries so that they are the same size. The Nio ET7 is thus offered with three different batteries (75, 100 and soon 150 kWh), which have exactly the same size. They are also compatible with the other vehicles of the brand: ET5, EL7, ES6 and ES8.

We could participate in the battery replacement of a Nio ET7 at the station in Berlin, completely new. You should know that there are currently six in Europe (three in Germany and three in Norway), but more than 1,160 in China. The goal is to have 4,000 by 2025, including 500 in Europe and 500 in the US.

Five minutes to “recharge” your car, it’s possible

In use, you simply reserve a space from the car display before arriving at the station. It is also possible to know if there are already drivers on the waiting list. On arrival, the car offers to perform the parking maneuver itself. In practice, you may prefer to do it yourself to save some time, since if the automatic parking is perfect, it will take a little longer than with an experienced driver behind the wheel.

When the car is properly parked (if this is not the case, a mechanism integrated in the station moves the car easily and perfectly), the battery replacement begins. The procedure lasts five minutes : a robotic arm unscrews and removes the battery from the car to store it before inserting another, 90% full.

If a customer ever arrives at a charging station where no battery is fully charged, they have the option to take one that is not yet at 90%.

During the procedure, the car switches off and is no longer electrically powered. So you have to wait a few minutes without ventilation or an entertainment system. Fortunately, the car is sheltered from the weather during the procedure. When finished, the car automatically restarts and the driver can drive immediately.

Batteries recharge at low speed

The discharged battery is then recharged in the charging station by a maximum power of 80 kW. This means that the battery is not exhausted and avoids an excessively high consumption peak on the network. Each station is limited to an instantaneous power of 500 kW on the network to charge the station’s various batteries simultaneously.

Sometimes Nio integrates fast chargers (of 500 kW) around the battery exchange station. In this case, the chargers can use the energy stored in the standby batteries, which can represent more than 1,000 kWh of energy. What reduces the impact on the network, take advantage of off-peak hours to recharge the batteries.

The charging station can hold 13 batteries simultaneously, but Nio states that each station has an average of 10. This means that the Chinese manufacturer has about 11,600 batteries “on standby” in a fleet of more than 250,000 electric cars.

The price of this “recharge”

Replacement (swap in English) of the batteries is free (up to two per month) in the case of renting the battery. In this case, the brand also offers 200 kWh of charging per month at fast charging stations. Benefits that cannot be transferred from one month to the next.

In addition to that, Nio charges 10 euros for each swap, to which must be added the “consumed” energy up to 20 euro cents per swap. kWh. This means that if you change a 100 kWh battery that is 50% discharged to another that is 90% charged, you have “consumed” 40 kWh.

In China, Nio staff are always present at the exchange station to offer services to the driver, such as cleaning the car. In Europe, the aim is not to have staff present at the station, except for the first few times to provide training. In fact, one of the technicians told us that Tesla in Norway tried to take advantage of the Power Swap Station when they are obviously incompatible.

Let the customer choose his battery

In addition to ultra-fast charging, the other advantage of Nios battery exchange stations is the possibility to modulate the capacity of its battery according to its needs. Do you have the 75 kWh battery and are you planning to go on a long trip? You can then switch to the future 150 kWh battery.

However, we don’t know how this translates in practice in terms of billing, because the 100 kWh battery costs a lot more to rent than its 75 kWh counterpart. We put the question to Nio, who will get back to us on this topic.

A battery is never obsolete technologically

Nio’s second argument in favor of its exchange system is the impossibility of ending up with a technologically outdated battery. When the future 150 kWh battery becomes available during the first quarter of 2023, current buyers will actually be able to pick it up at an exchange station.

It has already happened before, with the Nio ES8 in 70 kWh which switched to a 75 kWh battery. And since all the batteries have the same format, it is possible to replace them.

An expensive and restrictive solution

However, it will be necessary to see in the long term whether this functionality will not be perceived as a limitation of the company. The latter cannot actually change the shape of its future batteries without making them incompatible with the models already on the market.

And that’s without including the cost of this business model which requires the manufacturer to own several batteries and set up charging stations around the world. With a unit price of around 400,000 euros according to some estimates. We are far from the 40,000 dollars per Tesla Supercharger in Texas according to Bloomberg.

The second problem lies in the absence of a standard, which prevents Nio batteries and exchange stations from being compatible with other brands of electric cars. However, the Chinese manufacturer has informed us that it is in discussion with other car manufacturers who may release cars compatible with Nio’s trade-in network. A rolling prototype was even created by another manufacturer to test this functionality.

The company from Hefei in China is no longer alone in this activity. The Chinese giant CATL has its Evogo network, which it would like to import to Europe. A third competitor has just announced the imminent arrival of a similar solution: it is SAIC, MG’s parent company. And precisely, the new MG4 is based on a platform that is compatible with the replacement of batteries.

The war between fast charging on the one hand and battery replacement on the other has only just begun. Unless the two solutions are complementary to each other. Only the future will tell, hoping that the manufacturers succeed in finding a standard. Unless required by regulatory bodies.

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