Chinese electric vehicle start-up Nio is in talks with several other carmakers about licensing the battery-swapping technology that is at the heart of the group’s strategy to win over petrol-driving motorists in Europe, one of the company’s most senior executives said.
European president Hui Zhang said the company is holding talks with Chinese and international car groups to open its network of charging stations, which the company forecasts will rise from 800 to 5,000 globally by the middle of the decade.
It is targeting expansion in Europe, one of the most competitive markets in the world for electric cars, which is likely to become a testing ground for adopting the battery technology.
The group, which listed in 2018 and has sold 180,000 electric models in China, aims to have 1,000 swapping stations outside the country by 2025. These will be split between Europe and the US, which the business is expected to target after Europe.
“We want to be a well-established player in the premium segment [in Europe] by 2025,” Zhang said.
While about 50 companies working on battery swapping in China, Nio is the only one to have commercialised the system for cars to date.
The company wants to sell its battery-swapping system to other groups in order to widen the use of the technology, which it believes offers a way to overcome worries over chargers because of the limited number and the time it takes to power up a car that deters many consumers from switching to electric vehicles.
Nio’s system, which involves unscrewing the bottom of the car and replacing the battery through a hatch in the floor of the station, takes about five minutes.
Its first European site in Norway, the region’s leading electric car market because of its subsidies, is placed alongside superchargers used by Tesla, partly in order to demonstrate how much faster the system is than even the quickest chargers, which give some charge quickly but take up to an hour to fully replenish an empty battery.
The company began deliveries in September in Norway. It will launch in Germany, Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark this year, and is expected to launch in the UK, where it has a development base, later in the decade.
The battery-swap technology, which companies including Tesla have tested and abandoned, has worked in Nio’s home market because of high urban density and the scarcity of driveways.
Carmakers that buy the system must use the same batteries as Nio, in order to exchange them at swap stations, where they are switched at a dedicated robot-operated bay.
The company has to tackle the problem of expanding its battery-swap operation as each site requires a dedicated grid connection of 650MW, the size of a small power station. This is used to charge up to 13 batteries at the site.
Because the batteries at the station have to be able to fit into any car that arrives, another carmaker that uses Nio’s technology will have to build its vehicles using the company’s platform, as well as the specific proportion and design of its batteries, Zhang said.
Several carmakers have sought partnerships to help recoup investments in the new technologies they believe will get them a competitive edge in electric cars. Volkswagen is licensing its MEB electric car production system to Ford, while Renault’s Alpine sports car brand is sharing a new electric technology with Geely’s Lotus.
Nio believes battery swapping will lower the cost of accessing electric vehicles by eliminating the battery, which accounts for more than a third of the cost of a vehicle, from the initial price.
Currently, electric cars lose significant value because finance companies are uncertain about the health of a car battery after three years. By removing the battery from the car’s cost, Nio hopes customers will be able to access vehicles far more cheaply.
The company also refuses to disclose how much individual swap stations cost, or whether it ultimately loses money from the service.
Zhang added: “The origin of the idea is it really makes your [battery] usage very free, it’s not about Nio needing to make some extra profit out of that.”
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