Home TECH Ample raises $160 million on the promise of battery swapping

Ample raises $160 million on the promise of battery swapping

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Battery swapping has long been a dream solution for the infrastructure problem standing in the way of wide electric vehicle adoption. Tesla famously tried but then abandoned the idea half a decade ago. But now a startup called Ample has raised $160 million to try to make it work — first for commercial vehicles, then maybe passenger cars and SUVs.

Given the approach Ample founders John de Souza and Khaled Hassounah are taking, they’ll need every one of those dollars, and then some.

The goal with Ample is to convince automakers to make versions of their electric vehicles that have a sort of adapter plate instead of a full battery pack, while everything else stays the same. Then Ample plugs a bunch of battery modules into that adapter. The modules can then be easily swapped at automated battery swap stations, allowing for a much faster “fill-up” that saves time and money.

Ample then turns around and provides these vehicles (and the battery swap infrastructure) to fleets that want to go electric. The reduced charging time, plus less burdensome on-site infrastructure — one swap station versus a number of high-capacity chargers — are among the selling points. Uber is already using a few Ample stations in the Bay Area and supports a handful of vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and Kia Niro EVs.

What’s more, Ample is also going out and sourcing the cells that go in the modular packs, meaning it has to elbow its way into an extremely competitive market for batteries at a time when the world’s biggest automakers are literally throwing billions of dollars at trying to bring more battery capacity online.

de Souza and Hassounah aren’t coming at this cold, though. They’ve been building up Ample for years now, and some of its original investors — including Moore Strategic Ventures, which is run by hedge fund king and Fisker Inc. backer Louis Bacon, as well as Shell Ventures — are contributing to this series C funding round. Ample has brought on some new outside investors, too, like the venture arm of Singapore’s public transportation operator, as well as PTT, the major state-owned gas and oil company in Thailand.

And while battery swapping may still seem unfamiliar and possibly unfeasible in the US, it’s taking off in China, where startups like Nio have inspired the government there to basically start demanding a national standard. With billions of dollars headed toward charging infrastructure as part of the Biden administration’s push to clean up transportation emissions, as well as a flurry of investments and mergers happening in the electric vehicle space, there may be no better time for Ample to take its shot.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Let’s start with the funding because that’s the news. It seems like you’re bringing along some people who had already invested in the company, which I would imagine made a private round something that you would want to pursue and maybe perhaps a little easier than going another route. But obviously there is a large menu of options for funding these days for companies in the electric vehicle space, the automotive space in general, etc. What made you decide to go down this route that you’re about to announce?

John de Souza: I think the highest level of the question is do [we] want to stay private or do [we want to be] going public. I think for us at this point … there’s a lot to get done in terms of what we want to do in terms of bringing electric vehicles to to market, and we didn’t want any distraction from that. It’s a time where we’re focused on scaling and growing, and we are fortunate in that there are a lot of investors that see that and are willing to go through and work with us on it. So we decided for now staying a private company made a lot of sense, it allows us to keep the focus on exactly what we’re going to do.

I see that there are some familiar names involved in this round. Did you find any resistance to raising this much money in the private market? Or was the conversation easy enough? Do you feel like investors are sort of more up to speed now than they have been in the last couple of years as far as some of this technology goes?

John de Souza: There’s an opportunity to raise significantly more money. I think we chose an amount together with our investors that made sense. I think, if we wanted to go and raise more there’s an opportunity to raise more in the market. So I think investors definitely see the opportunity.

If you look back a few years, initially it was sort of, “Will electric cars ever happen?” or, “Is it electric, is it hydrogen?” I think that game has played out where now [people] see it’s electric. The question then became: “Is electric going to happen in the next 10 years?” That has gone. And so I think right now, it’s real. People see the tremendous momentum towards it. And they look at the different problems … there’s a bunch of people trying to solve the vehicle problem, you know, all OEMs are, but there aren’t many people that have a really good solution for the infrastructure, so I think that helped us. We have a solution that solves a problem and can be profitable. And so it was easy to go back in to find investors that saw it, understand it, and want to invest in it.

Khaled Hassounah: This round is kind of led by existing investors who’ve already been supporting Ample for a while, plus external investors. So external validation [shows] more and more people can understand and see the value of what you’re creating. But for us it was a very positive thing that our existing investors really saw the business grow and get what it is, to double down, and kind of say, “Okay, we want it scaled.” For us, this was the ultimate signal that this is not [investors] coming and getting the dog and pony show, going “Oh, this is great” — they actually understand it very, very deeply, and have been there for years, and just working with us to go to the next level.

There’s a somewhat long history to this idea, and I’m interested in what it feels like to try to build up this company now, when there is a much different set of circumstances like more money in the space and wider adoption of EVs.

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Khaled Hassounah: I think when you’re talking about technologies fundamentally changing the way we do things, they more often than not are second and third attempts, right? So Google was not the first search engine, Tesla was not the first electric car. So to a great degree, very often it’s less about kind of coming up with an idea that is completely new and no one has ever thought through, because most likely, if no one ever thought about it, it probably has no merit, right? John has a slide which shows a car from 1944 that’s being battery swapped, so the idea of moving energy, physically, has a lot of merit.

I think where the innovation comes in understanding not how do you create an idea from scratch, but just the hard work of figuring out, well, how do you adjust the way you think about that idea so that it becomes viable, so that it becomes inexpensive, easy to deploy.

I think innovation comes more in that form. I mean we had to kind of fundamentally change one core aspect to it which is this idea of making it modular, because if you shift your mentality and say “Okay, it’s not one big bulk battery I’m going to move, I’m going to break it into smaller pieces,” a lot of things become a lot easier. But it requires a lot of innovation on the technology side.

Other than that, generally it’s just a lot of thinking on how do you make this practical economically viable, easy to deploy. And that’s where a lot of the innovation came from.

John de Souza: There are lots people that said “let’s make the OEM standardize,” which sounds great and you’re just pushing all the work on to the OEMs. We said, well, let’s not ask them to standardize, let’s do all the work ourselves. And as Khaled mentioned, modularity helped us solve it. But we said we’ll do the heavy lifting. The solution isn’t to say well the OEM should just all standardize their solutions.

One thing I want to ask you before we get into how things work, is that as you were raising this money, China has pushed really hard on this idea as well, and they are in some ways pursuing a sort of sweeping battery swap standard that may come to bear over there. Did that make it easier for you guys to raise money, and did that change your thinking technologically about how you might want to approach it, seeing what those companies were doing?

John de Souza: I think in the US, we don’t look enough as to what’s happening around the world. So, I think a lot of people are surprised that there is a lot of battery swapping going on in China.

I think what is even more telling is that China has 16 times the number of fast chargers as the US — why are they doing battery swapping? And that I think is when people realize, “Hm, there must be something that’s not working with these fast chargers.”

So I think that really helped in terms of, they did invest a lot in charging, and now they’re doing this … It’s an opportunity for us to learn from what they’ve gone through.

Khaled Hassounah: But one thing we have to be careful with is also making the assumption that we’re just taking technology from China and applying it to the West, because we have been working on this long before we even knew China was doing battery swapping. We’ve been at this for eight years. I think what China’s kind of pushing hard for it does [help], at least from a conceptual standpoint, it gets people familiar with the idea of, “even though China has built 16 times as many fast chargers as the US, they still kind of shifted, and there’s a good reason why that’s the case.” So it just makes kind of the overall argument a lot easier to sell. I think people pay a bit more attention.

But in a way, battery swapping China-style — where the government forces every large automaker to go ahead and introduce a battery-swapping solution — doesn’t work in our environment, our market, and the way we do business and the way we do policy. So we need a different approach that can create an infrastructure that can be used by multiple automakers without them having to go and become a fully vertically integrated provider. And [in China] there’s less considerations for labor costs, and you can just staff factories with people all day long and assume that you’re going to make it economically viable because the government will subsidize you.

We had to kind of home grow our own way of doing things that’s different that works within our environment. But I think the fundamental idea of moving energy physically is a lot cheaper, faster, easier to scale, [and] is the core idea here and I think it’s just maybe the commonality between the two.

We’re talking as the government here is still trying to put the final touches on a somewhat relatively big infrastructure deal, and that’s obviously a big focus of this administration. The awareness China brings to the idea of battery swapping is maybe advantageous to you. Establishing those differences between how they’re doing it and how you want to do it is important. Is there a political component to this, too? Does it help that China is working on this idea in the sense that you can say, “Hey, we need this too?” knowing how the reflection of what they’re doing versus what we’re doing is important to the policymakers in this country?

Khaled Hassounah: It does, I just don’t want to overemphasize that. We have to do things because they make sense, not because China’s doing them, because otherwise you end up with the wrong policy.

So, in a way we just have to think practically on how we get there, and we’d much rather kind of focus on that and say, “Listen, China China China” … and then that’s how you split people because you’re not making a solid, reasonable argument that makes sense.

On the technological side, you’ve both talked a little bit about this idea of keeping things modular trying to make it work for the OEMs. Can you walk me through a little bit more detail about what goes into that approach and why an OEM would want to embrace this idea?

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John de Souza: Our approach with the OEMs is to give them an easy way to embrace this technology, and we said, we don’t want them to change the car, we don’t want them to have to change what they do. So the way we work with them is they continue to offer their fixed-battery [vehicles]. But for the solutions where swapping makes sense, they can offer this as an alternative without requiring them to go through and change the vehicle.

So it allows them from a business perspective to say, for the people that can use charging, the people who charge overnight at home, or whatever the situation is, we’ll continue to offer a solution. But for all these other [customers] where infrastructure is the limiting factor, here’s a partnership we have that allows us very easily to go through and solve both — allow them to move to electric and solve the infrastructure at the same time. We don’t view OEMs as our customers. Fleets are our customers and we partner with the OEMs to deliver a complete solution of infrastructure and vehicle.

Building one battery pack that’s tightly integrated into the car can allow automakers to get the best optimization; they run the software that controls the pack, integrate it physically in the layout, knowing every centimeter matters when we’re talking about energy density. But say they embrace this idea and they want to serve some fleet customers with this modular battery pack idea. What are some of the tradeoffs they have to make in this sort of end product of this car that is powered by your modular pack, knowing that it’s got to be more difficult to reach the same kinds of vertical integration optimizations they can get from doing it themselves?

Khaled Hassounah: So that’s not what we’re going to do. We’re not going to the OEMs and giving them a battery and saying “even though you optimized this other battery to have the right shape, to have the right software interface etc, you should do something else.” We’re actually doing the opposite, which is we build our technology in a way where we adapt to how they decide to build the car — and that’s true for all ten car models we integrate with. We’re actually already working on two, hopefully soon three, more car models as well.

At the end of the day when you build an electric car you build a vehicle, and you build a battery. The battery has a certain envelope it can work within, and certain attachment points at which you attach to the chassis to provide the structural rigidity needed. And then you have a simple electrical and software interface. It’s really very basic.

So we build what we call an adapter plate — it’s a bit more than that, this is a disservice — but we build kind of a structure that is identical to [the automaker’s] battery. It has the same software interface, has an electrical interface, attaches at exactly the same point, and provides the same level of security that you expect.

Once that’s installed in the car, we can swap the modules out of it… we can always get to within 10 percent — sometimes 10 percent lower, sometimes 10 percent higher — in capacity, but our interface with the vehicle is exactly the same.

If you look at traditional battery swapping, typically you went to the OEM and say we need you to build a different car, or modify the chassis of an existing car so that the battery can be taken in and out. In this case, no. We’re saying there’s a fixed device that stays in the car, it works exactly the same way, but it gives us an interface on the other end to take batteries in and out. We’ve standardized the batteries without forcing the OEMs to standardize the [pack], because they still build the car the same way.

But there is a capacity tradeoff at some level, you said 10 percent?

Khaled Hassounah: I mean sometimes we’re actually 10 percent higher. It depends. We’re not smarter engineers, we don’t want to claim we’re better than OEMs that are doing this. We’re better than some of them, but we’re not going to tell you whom. [Laughs]

We can figure out how to fit the maximum chemistry in the volume available, how to make sure it lives long, and how to monitor it. A lot of the innovation now is the chemistry. Really the LGs, Panasonics, CATLs of the world are the ones that are doing most of the innovations to get more energy into the form factor. The pack war was won five years ago when everybody became the same.

You talk about putting in all that work of designing the modular version of their battery pack — are you also turning around and sourcing the same kinds of materials, the same cells, or is the OEM going out and sourcing them, then providing them to you so you can fit them into these battery packs you have ready to swap?

John de Souza: We are providing them with the complete battery pack. Think of everything that goes into building the battery pack, so we source the cells, we source everything to build it, and we deliver a fully made battery pack to the OEM.

Khaled Hassounah: One thing we typically don’t talk about because people are not interested in it, but it’s really very impactful, is that part of our innovation is this idea of abstracting the car from the chemistry. We use power electronics inside our modules that are inexpensive enough — that’s a lot of the innovation, how to make it inexpensive enough that it doesn’t impact the overall cost of the battery, but it allows us to abstract the car from the chemistry.

What that means… the first need was, how do you make one chemistry work with different cars. But then the flip advantage of that is how do you make one car work with multiple chemistries. So we’re able to kind of put different chemistries, even different state of health and state of charge and internal resistance, etc., in the same car, at the same time. In effect what that means is that over time, as you buy your car, we can keep introducing better chemistries that work with the existing vehicle.

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So, in a way, we’re solving the problem for the OEM because right now they have to design the car around a specific chemistry and get stuck with it. And even if everybody thinks they have the best chemistry — that’s impossible. Even if someone else invents a better chemistry, the transition takes five to seven years and that’s what we’re seeing. So in a way, we’re making it more into like a three- to five-month process where if there’s a chemistry that is cheaper and safer, we just put it in.

Does that in turn create any more work for the OEMs on maybe the software side of having to account for what chemistries go into the battery?

Khaled Hassounah: That’s the beauty, it’s fully abstracted from them. So we do that on our end. We’re able to introduce to, to present the newer chemistry, even if it’s a voltage range, [it will be delivered] at the same voltage connecting into the vehicle. And that kind of simplification is what they should be easy for them because even for different chemistry we just adjust it and plug it in.

We haven’t had to make a single line of software modification to any of the cars we integrated with even though we put varying chemistry in it in and a varying number of modules.

How do you handle crash testing and safety implications of all of this, is that something that you guys are actually going and proving out, to make sure cars that use these modular battery packs are at the same standard of the sort of typical version?

John de Souza: The good news is that you have standards that you have to go through and certifications that you have to do to demonstrate that [these batteries] are safe enough to go into the cars. So we have to do the same tests as anybody else putting batteries in cars. You go through, perform the tests, make sure you pass all those tests. In addition, as you work with every OEM, they may have additional tests that they want.

The last thing I want to ask you about is the fleet side of this, the people who you’re saying are going to be your sort of initial customers. One of the things we hear all the time is that fleets (and the commercial space in general) makes the most sense for early adoption of electric vehicles because the way that they operate is very standardized and very easy to predict, and that sort of lessens the burden of charging. What’s your pitch to fleet customers to win them over to your approach versus installing five Level 2 chargers or a couple DC fast chargers and going that way.

Khaled Hassounah: I’m just gonna say one thing and then John you should comment on this. I’ll just say there’s what we convince ourselves is true, and what reality is. So let’s just start with that.

John de Souza: I would say our best customers right now are people who’ve tried [battery swapping], because there’s a theoretical concept that people have, and they can convince themselves that charging will work, you will get everything lined up, people will show up to the depots and sync and you’ll get 95 percent utilization. And then they deploy the first 50 chargers and that’s usually when they’re about ready to cancel their EV program.

[There’s also] the shock of installing chargers. You expect it’s going to be $3-$5,000. But then, one [customer] was saying, in the end you have landscaping, all this stuff that you’re digging up. And if people are going to be [charging] a while they may need to be ADA compliant. You could be spending $3,000 plus per charger. So the cost is much higher than you think it’s going to be. So you get these installed, then you have to upgrade power, because the problem with chargers is that when everybody comes in and turns it on, you have this huge peak, so you need to upgrade and it costs a lot of money. And people are coming up with smart software, which is how do you drip [electricity] to different people.. which basically doesn’t work that well. And then the operational complexity is tremendous.

So for us, our pitch is very simple. Do what you do right now. Switch over to electric, it will operationally stay the same, and we’ll charge you less than gas per mile, and we’ll take care of all the infrastructure. And that they understand. It’s very simple.

Speaking of some of those considerations, what is your approach for the end of life of these batteries? Do you have a certain threshold that they have to hit before you pull them out of the system. What’s the process after that?

Khaled Hassounah: It’s very straightforward. The batteries have a certain life cycle, it’s more or less predictable if you optimally charge them, they hit X number of cycles, and their capacity goes below [Y]. Being able to take them out is very straightforward because they’re literally being taken out every time you get energy into the into the vehicle so as they go out we take them out, they’re built in a way where we can immediately use them in second life.

Now one of the huge advantages is because we actively control how they’re charged, we really can get the maximum cycles out of them. If you have a battery that lasts 1000 cycles, versus one that you fast charge and can only do 700 cycles, the 1,000 cycle battery is 50 percent less expensive than the 700 cycle.

But one other thing is that when batteries are not being used, they do lose capacity so when you put a battery in a Tesla and you just park it for eight years, it is going to lose capacity. So there is kind of a time component. What we’re doing by moving batteries across vehicles is that we do get the maximum utilization out of every battery.

So over time that will lower the costs for everyone, but also increase the utilization of it before we have to go and completely recycle the batteries.

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