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Friday, June 21, 2024

Battery-Swapping Tech Gives Electric Motorcycles an Edge

The idea of swapping flat batteries for full ones on electric cars has been around for over a decade, but is still struggling to get traction despite the best efforts of Nio. On two wheels, though, the same idea has pulled together manufacturers like nothing else before in a global effort to create a standardized battery that works across multiple brands and models, and which opens the door to a new way of thinking in EV development.

In the West, electric motorcycle evolution and sales lag behind their four-wheeled equivalents. Smaller figures for sales, production and profits, longer model cycles, and a customer base that’s both enthusiastic about traditional ICE technology and wary of radical change mean that developing electric bikes and turning them into a large-scale money-making proposition is a daunting challenge that nobody has yet truly risen to. 

But with legislation on the way to end the sales of carbon-emitting two-wheelers—as early as 2030 for smaller, lower performance bikes in the UK, if current government proposals get the green light—there’s a fast-growing need to solve the question of how to balance range, performance, and price of electric bikes in a way that will keep customers coming. And battery-swapping looks set to be a substantial part of the solution.

For electric cars, the challenge of swapping batteries is a monumental one. The car needs to be designed with it in mind, and the vast size and weight of battery packs means an automated, mechanical system is required to do the job. What’s more, with a growing number of EVs integrating their batteries into their structure to save weight and space, making them easily removable requires a complete U-turn in engineering. Even when battery-swapping has become a reality, as with China’s Nio brand, it’s limited to that company’s vehicles. Imagine if car makers a century ago required you to use only their brand of fuel, incompatible with any other vehicle—that’s the current state of the art for battery-swap tech in cars.

On two-wheels, a clear divide is starting to appear. While several brands focusing on larger, higher performance electric motorcycles are following the car route—engineering bespoke battery packs into their frames as structural components—a significant second group has realized that battery-swapping could be the key to a beneficial cycle, and that by working together to establish a standard (just as early electronics companies came together around the familiar AA, C, D, and AAA cells that are still in use today) they open the door to cheaper, lighter electric motorcycles and scooters that have none of the range anxiety associated with fixed-battery designs.

For electric motorcycles even more than cars, range is a concern. The established solution on four wheels has been to add ever bigger batteries—right up to the vast 210-kWh pack of the new Hummer EV—and to rely on the enormous excess of torque available from electric motors to offset the additional weight they bring. 

This, however, is not a viable solution on motorcycles, where every additional kilo brings a disadvantage in performance and handling, and where there simply isn’t the space to endlessly increase the size of a battery. As a result, the current class-leaders often struggle to achieve even 100 miles of real-world range, punctuated by extended recharging stops. Electric bikes may have smaller batteries than cars, but they don’t refill much quicker, and usually lack the cooling and electronics needed to benefit from the fastest of rapid chargers.

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Battery-swapping technology reverses the vicious circle that larger batteries bring for bikes, where more kWh means more weight, a bigger motor, bigger brakes, and stronger suspension, all adding even more mass and bulk to the mix. Provided a widespread network of battery-swap stations is available (a big ask, admittedly), allowing dead batteries to be replaced with fresh ones in a matter of seconds—faster, cheaper, and cleaner than even filling a petrol tank would be—then stopping regularly to do it becomes less of a chore. 

If you can reduce a bike’s range to, say, 50 miles, but make the battery swap process fast and easy, you reap the rewards everywhere else. The battery, motor, brakes, chassis, and suspension parts can all be reduced in size and weight without a loss in performance, adding efficiency all the way. Since the batteries are essentially leased rather than owned by the customer, it means bikes using them can be substantially cheaper, and fears of batteries getting weaker with age are also set aside, as the packs used in the battery-swap network can be kept up to a minimum standard. 

Even better, as technology improves, new batteries with greater capacity or less weight can be developed to meet the same physical size and connection standards, giving a boost in performance or range to all the bikes using them. A growing number of motorcycle manufacturers have already spotted the potential. While battery-swappable bikes can already be bought—for instance, the new Maeving RM1, Honda’s Benly e and Gyro e, or Yamaha’s NEO’s scooter—the step change will come with the introduction of standardized batteries and a network of battery-swap stations. 

The alliance of companies working toward that goal is already substantial and growing fast. As long ago as April 2019, the Japanese “Big Four”—Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and Kawasaki—established a working group to hammer out a standard battery specification. Two years later, in March 2021, the results were in, and that standard was set out in a technical paper for the Society of Automotive Engineers of Japan. 

In September 2021, a similar consortium was set up to do the same in Europe, this time including Honda, Yamaha, KTM (owner of the KTM, Husqvarna, and GasGas brands), and the Piaggio Group that owns Vespa, Aprilia, Moto Guzzi, Gilera, and Derbi, as well as the currently dormant Laverda. 

At the time, Piaggio’s chief of strategy, Michele Colaninno, said: “Swappable batteries give the right answer to speed up the recharging time of vehicles, offering an additional valuable choice for users.” Stefan Pierer, CEO of KTM’s parent group, Pierer Mobility, added that “together with our partners, we will work to deliver a swappable battery system for low-voltage vehicles (48V) up to 11-kW capacity, based on international technical standards.”

As Pierer suggested, the swappable battery specification set in Japan, which the European consortium is also targeting, is for 48-volt battery packs, essentially reflecting an ecosystem that Honda has already established with its Mobile Power Pack e swappable batteries, revealed in 2018. Those batteries are used in several Japanese-market Honda scooters, including the PCX Electric, the Gyro e, and the Benly e, but are also intended for use in an array of other equipment from snowblowers to power walls. Like other standard battery types, they can be used single or grouped together to increase performance or durability. Swedish manufacturer Husqvarna’s e-Pilen—a near-production concept bike shown in 2021—also uses three removable battery packs that appeared to be very similar to the Honda 48-volt design, which could potentially be used to power the robotic lawn-mowers, chainsaws, trimmers, brush cutters, and garden tractors it makes.

Standardizing the battery is just the first step, though: The much bigger task is to set up a network to supply, charge, and swap them. Earlier this year, in April 2022, the original Japanese battery swap consortium of Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and Kawasaki teamed up with ENEOS Holdings, Japan’s largest oil company, to establish a new company, Gachaco, tasked with those jobs. 

This “battery as a service” for electric motorcycles and scooters is intended to eliminate the worries of charging times and range, which are seen as the big roadblocks in the path to EV domination in the two-wheeled market. Honda’s Mobile Power Pack e will be the standard battery used, with exchange stations to be set up across Japan starting in Tokyo this fall, at convenient spots like train stations and ENEOS filling stations, which immediately give access to a nationwide network. 

Since the European battery-swap consortium is likely to adopt a similar set of specifications, thus allowing the same Honda-designed pack to essentially become a global standard, the Japanese model is one that’s likely to be rolled out on this side of the world in the next year or two. 

With it, we could expect to see a rapid growth in the number of motorcycles on the market using standardized, swappable batteries. Most are likely to be at the smaller, cheaper end of the market, equivalent to 125-cc petrol-powered machines making no more than 11 kW (15 hp) of continuous power (although peak power can be substantially higher) and complying with European learner laws, therefore eliminating the need for a full motorcycle license and allowing anyone with a valid CBT (Compulsory Basic Training) certificate, obtained with just a day’s training, to use them.

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