In today’s modern world, it’s really easy to forget that not everything in life needs to be automated. Sometimes, it’s easier, cheaper, and more reliable to ditch a computer in favor of something a little more down-to-earth.
So when we heard about a Slovak company claiming it had developed a battery swap system which was simple, quick and reliable at far less cost than the now-bankrupt Israeli firm Better Place, we had to check it out.
Enter GreenWay, a Slovak mobility company which offers customers various electric vehicle rental packages in which battery swapping — or in the case of its recently launched car-leasing service DC quick charging — are included in the price.
Unlike the now bankrupt Better Place however, GreenWay has built its battery swapping technology around the commercial vehicle instead of passenger car market. And its vehicle of choice isn’t a mass-produced electric car either: it’s the appropriately named Citroen Relay van, converted for GreenWay to electricity by a company in the neighbouring Czech republic.
Sadly, while visiting Slovakia yesterday for the official launch of GreenWay’s DC quick charge network, there wasn’t much time for questions regarding the GreenWay battery swap technology, so we’re a little light on specifications of the vehicle.
What we can tell you however, is that each converted relay van is fitted out with a special battery mounting system located just behind the cab bulkhead. And watching the battery swap process in action is like watching a very carefully planned military procedure.
Unlike Better Place, there are no robotic arms, no multi-million dollar car guidance systems, and no fancy displays.
The driver of the vehicle — usually a commercial delivery driver — jumps out of his vehicle and over to a small panel on the swap station itself. With a flick of a wrist, the system recognizes his RFID smart card system and automatically unlocks two doors: one behind which the battery packs are stored, and one which hides a lift stacker.
For those who don’t know, a lift stacker is a little like a fork lift, but instead of sitting on it to control where it goes, the operator stands behind it.
Sliding open the side door on the passenger side, the driver lines up the lift stacker with two sturdy rails on which the entire 60 kilowatt-hour, 600 kilo lithium-ion battery pack sits.
The battery pack is then unlocked mechanically and electronically, using a manual lever arrangement and an electronically-operated safety interlock. With both locks disengaged, the old battery can be slid out of the van and onto the waiting lift stacker.
Despite its weight, the process is made easy thanks to rollers embedded in the floor of the battery chamber.
What worked for the ancient Egyptians it seems is still useful today.
With the old battery pack removed, the driver is instructed where in the swap station to place it via small lights and an LED information panel. With the depleted battery safely locked into the swap station, a new battery is unlocked and can be slid into position in the van while the depleted battery is left to charge.
Our demonstrator from GreenWay — supposedly the fastest at battery swapping the company has seen — managed the whole process in less than five minutes.
That’s faster, by the way, than the battery swapping process we experienced in Israel a few years ago as guests of Better Place.
Within a few short years, GreenWay is already proving popular in its home market. While the battery swap technology only works with one vehicle — a large non-articulated delivery van — we can see it being used with other vehicles in the future.
Naturally too, GreenWay’s system does take up some space in the rear of the vehicles, but not so much that it prevents practical use in a wide variety of commercial delivery and courier situations.
GreenWay has proven to Slovakia that the simplest solutions are often the best, but now it has a much harder task: proving the rest of the world. And with GreenWay already talking to investors, it seems likely that we’ll see battery swap stations elsewhere — as long as the spectre of Better Place hasn’t scared people away from commercial vehicle battery swapping completely, that is.
GreenWay provided airfare, meals and lodging to enable us to bring you this first-person report.
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