tried to “recharge” the batteries in five minutes, and it’s amazing

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

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

If you don’t know the principle, this is a new way to “recharge” the batteries of 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 exchanged for a “full” battery. Well, almost, as the charge rate 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 who has had to standardize all of their batteries so that they are the same size. So the Nio ET7 is offered with three different batteries (75, 100 and soon 150 kWh) that are 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 change of a Nio ET7 at the station in Berlin, brand new. You may 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 “charge” your car, it is possible

In use, all you have to do is reserve a space on the car’s screen before arriving at the station. It is also possible to know if there are already drivers on the waiting list. Upon arrival, the car offers to carry out the parking manoeuvre. In practice, you may prefer to do it yourself to save a little time, as if automatic parking is perfect, it takes a little longer than with an experienced driver behind the wheel.

Once the car is parked correctly (if not, a mechanism integrated into the dock repositions the car smoothly and perfectly), battery replacement begins. The procedure takes five minutes : A robotic arm unscrews and removes the car battery to store it, before inserting another, 90% full.

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

During the procedure, the car turns off and is no longer electrically powered. Then you have to wait a few minutes without ventilation or entertainment system. Happily, the car is protected from the weather during the procedure. Once finished, the car automatically restarts and the driver can drive right away.

Low speed recharged batteries

The discharged battery is then recharged at the charging station in a maximum power of 80 kW. This allows the battery not to be overcharged and to avoid excessively high consumption peaks 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.

Nio sometimes integrates fast chargers (500 kW) around the battery change station. In this case, chargers can use the energy stored in the backup batteries, which can represent more than 1,000 kWh of energy. This reduces the impact on the grid, so take advantage of off-peak hours to recharge your batteries.

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

The price of this “recharge”

The exchanges (swap in English) of the batteries are free (up to two per month) in case of battery rental. 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, Nio charges 10 euros for each exchange, to which the “consumed” energy is added, up to 20 euro cents per kWh. This means that if you replace a 100 kWh battery with 50% discharge for one with 90% charge, you will have “used up” 40 kWh.

In China, Nio employees 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 education. Indeed, one of the technicians told us that in Norway Tesla tried to take advantage of the Power Swap Station when they are obviously incompatible.

Let the customer choose their battery

In addition to ultra-fast charging, another advantage of Nio’s battery change stations is the ability to modulate your battery’s capacity according to your needs. Do you have the 75 kWh battery and plan on taking a long trip? You can then switch to the future 150 kWh battery pack.

However, we don’t know how this translates in practice, in terms of revenue, because the 100 kWh battery costs much more to rent than the 75 kWh battery. We asked Nio the question, who should get back to us on this matter.

A battery that is never technologically outdated

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

This has happened in the past, with the Nio ES8 at 70 kWh that has been switched to a 75 kWh battery pack. And since all batteries are the same shape, you can change them.

An expensive and restrictive solution

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

And that’s not counting the costs of it. business model which requires the manufacturer to own multiple batteries and install charging stations around the world. With a unit price of around 400,000 euros according to some estimates. We’re nowhere near the $40,000 per Tesla Supercharger in Texas, according to Bloomberg.

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

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

The war between fast charging on one side and battery swapping on the other is just beginning. Unless the two solutions are complementary to each other. Only the future will tell, hoping that manufacturers can find a standard. Unless imposed by regulatory bodies.

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