California startup touts battery-swapping to juice demand for electric vehicles


March 3 (Reuters) - Ample, a seven-year-old San Francisco startup, wants to skirt one of the big hurdles to widespread adoption of electric vehicles by reviving the idea of quick, automated battery swaps for owners concerned about running out of juice while driving.

The main benefits, according to co-founders Khaled Hassounah and John de Souza, are time and cost savings. EV owners would no longer face long lines and wait times at charging stations. And the cost of the modular batteries that Ample has developed could be amortized over longer periods of time, which in turn could lower the initial cost of an electric vehicle, much of which currently is tied to the battery pack.

Hassounah, Ample's chief executive, and de Souza, president, said their system can replace a depleted battery with a fully charged one in less than 10 minutes, using an automated process that “works with any electric vehicle,” at a cost “as cheap as gasoline.”

Despite Ample's bold business model, the road blocks to success are many.

The concept of battery swapping was tried more than 10 years ago, with great fanfare and lots of funding, by Israeli startup Better Place. The company raised - and eventually burned through - more than $800 million before closing its doors in 2013 after failing to convince enough vehicle manufacturers to embrace its concept.

Ample, which faces competition from at least six startups with similar strategies, has raised $55 million from such backers as Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSa.L) and Spain's Repsol SA (REP.MC), according to investor website PitchBook.

Although Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) initially tested, then withdrew, a plan to offer battery swapping to customers, EV maker Nio Inc (NIO.N) lets customers swap batteries at some 200 locations in China. Honda Motor Co Ltd (7267.T) has partnered with Yamaha Motor Co Ltd (7272.T) and scooter maker Piaggio (PIA.MI) to develop swappable batteries for light electric vehicles.

Automakers also are rolling out vehicles with improved battery packs that provide longer range between charges, as well as shorter charge times, which could make battery swapping obsolete.

A greater impediment may be that automakers including Tesla and General Motors Co (GM.N) already have or are working on proprietary battery systems, and are likely uninterested in redesigning their vehicles to accommodate Ample’s modular batteries.

Hassounah said Ample is working with four of the world’s 10 largest automakers, but declined to identify them. The company also has partnered with Uber Technologies Inc (UBER.N) in San Francisco, swapping batteries in Nissan Leafs.

Reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit Editing by Matthew Lewis

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