Electric Vehicle Wednesday: Scooter Battery Swapping Mystery

I liked this post on Twitter today:

Then I tried to track down the story, to learn the details, and found…nothing?

First I noticed that that tweet itself doesn’t link to a news story. That’s unusual, but maybe that’s more common in China. I’m not sure.

Then I searched Google (Baidu probably would be more helpful, but I don’t read or write Chinese) and found very little. SF Express does seem to be a Chinese logistics company, akin to Fedex or UPS in the US. But their English-language website doesn’t even feature a photo of a scooter, much less anything about battery swapping.

China Tower is a giant, state-owned electric utility. They do have an English-language website, although finding it takes a minute. The entity seems so huge that a battery-swap pilot seems like it would be small potatoes in the scheme of things, and their Media section hasn’t seen a press release in six months.

Google Search didn’t have much to show for this, but it did return a news story about a Chinese company called Immotor. Immotor even has a Crunchbase profile ($64.3M raised!) but the website URL redirects to a page that just has Chinese app links.

There are also a few stories, marginally better contextualized, about Yamaha running an e-scooter battery swap pilot in Australia.

Anyhow, the e-scooter battery swap idea seems pretty neat. If the battery really is the size of a lunch box, that would seem to make this much more viable than battery-swapping for passenger vehicles. Instead of a whole network of automated or semi-automated swapping stations, a la Better Place, the network could just host racks of batteries and let the rider handle the swapping.

I’d love to learn whether this type of system is real or not.


Tayeb sent me a link to a (lengthy!) Chinese-language news story about the battery swapping program. The Google Translation of the story is awkward, but it appears that the program has been in place since 2019 and targets primarily food delivery drivers. There’s enough demand that stations running out of charged batteries is a big problem. In the future, they hope to expand the system to the general public.

Electric Vehicle Monday: Utilization

A team of economists contends that electric vehicles travel about half as much as their internal combustion engine (ICE) counterparts, about 5000 miles for EVs compared to 10,000 for ICEs. The researchers speculate that this information supports the hypothesis that EVs and ICEs are complements, rather than substitutes.

That is, EVs may not take over the world, but multi-car households may choose to own both an EV and an ICE, and utilize them for different types of trips.

The effort that went into the study is impressive — the team linked data from the California utility PG&E with data from the California DMV, in order to figure out which households owned EVs, how much more electricity they purchased, and thus how many miles they likely drove. There seem to be some careful corrections, for example, the data accounts for solar panel ownership and the resulting drop in demand from the electrical grid.

The results of the study seem plausible and maybe even intuitive — the type of households that purchase EVs seem plausibly likely to also be low-mileage households, generally, and also multi-car households.

Perhaps because of that plausibility, I’m hesitant to conclude too much from the study, other than electrification is still relatively new and limited technology. Presumably, as electrification expands, the types of households that purchase EVs will come to more closely resemble the median household. At the same time, EV range seems to be ever-increasing.

For now, EVs are still largely a status and luxury good for consumers that can afford the cost and other limitations. But they seem to be moving steadily mass-market.

Electric Scooters

In the Before Times, I used to commute to San Francisco by car or train, drop my son at preschool in one part of the city, and take a short ride on an electric scooter to my office in another part of the city.

I really enjoyed the scooter ride, although I can’t defend why I would never purchase a motorcycle but I gleefully navigated a scooter through San Francisco traffic.

So I read with some interest a story in City Monitor called, “The future of transportation is small and electric.” The story is largely about the potential of electric scooters to dramatically reduce pollution in Asia.

“In India, people purchase 17 million motorcycles and scooters every year, and only about three million cars and trucks. The motorcycles can be quite cheap — and getting people to switch to electric can be strongly influenced by subsidies, tax advantages and other promotional policies.”

I’ve only taken a few trips to southeast Asia, but I have always been overwhelmed by the volume of motorcycle and scooter traffic. India, in particular, has some of the worst air pollution in the world due to these vehicles.

“It’s clear that getting gas vehicles off the streets can make a quick difference in air quality. Delhi, India’s capital, discovered this phenomenon in April, just a few weeks into the first Covid-19 lockdown. With most of its 5.5 million motorcycles sidelined, the city, deemed by the World Health Organization to be among the world’s most polluted, experienced something it hadn’t seen in decades — blue skies — and levels of harmful particles in the air fell by close to 60%.”

I look forward to a future world of blue skies and no (or at least much less) air pollution.

Electric Vehicle Monday

A couple of interesting news stories crossed the wire recently, with respect to electric vehicles (H/T Reilly Brennan).

In The Drive, John Voelcker explains all the caveats around GM’s recent announcement targeting an all-electric light duty vehicle fleet by 2035.

“Many people and companies aspire to many things. I aspire to get back in shape after a year of mostly isolation, for instance. Whether it actually happens is a very different story.”

In Harvard Business Review, a trio of academics suggest that automotive manufacturers follow Tesla’s lead and divert a little bit (ahem, a billion dollars each) to building out an electric vehicle charging network.

There’s a fair bit to take issue with in the analysis, starting with this confident but unsupported assertion:

“The reason why consumers still choose Teslas over products like Audi’s eTron or attractive EVs from GM’s Buick, Cadillac, GMC, and Chevy brands is perhaps surprisingly simple. They can drive their Teslas for long distances in full confidence that they will find convenient locations at which to recharge their vehicle.”

But the article raises a question that seems obvious but hadn’t occurred to me (at least not in any deep way) — why don’t gas stations install electric charging units?

The HBR article makes passing mention of this:

“Many existing fossil fuel energy firms, for example, have gas station assets that will eventually become stranded and could be repurposed for electric vehicles.”

But the analysis doesn’t go much deeper than that.

This is a question that charging network startups like Blink must think about constantly.

For sure, the economics are different. Charging cars takes much longer, so vehicle turnover is much lower. Gas stations are often affiliated with oil extraction companies, which might complicate adding electric power stations connected to the normal grid. Probably there are permitting issues.

But none of these seem insurmountable, especially as electric vehicle sales begin to increase and seem poised to explode.

And yet…I don’t think I’ve ever seen a gas station with electric charging bays. So what’s the story?

Electric Cars vs. Self-Driving Cars

The New York Times reports that Apple is still deciding whether to develop an electric car, a self-driving car, or both.

It is not unusual for Apple to work on several prototypes of a product at the same time, as it did with the iPhone and the iPad.

I am decidedly in the self-driving car camp.

It’s the vitamin vs. aspirin dichotomy I first heard Mark Leslie explain.

Electric cars are vitamins. They’re probably good for us and we should use them.

Self-driving cars are aspirin. We are in pain and we need them now. Driving is (often) excruciatingly painful. Self-driving cars are the solution.

Originally published at www.davidincalifornia.com on September 22, 2015.

Race to the Future

I have recently been reading The Great Race by Levi Tillemann, which is a history of the automotive industry and the quest for the electric car, in particular.

At the end of the book, Tillemann spends a few pages riffing on the brief recent history of, and potential for, self-driving cars. Since most of the book is focused on the electric vehicle and it’s environmental benefits, it’s no surprise that Tillemann’s thoughts on autonomous vehicles also converge on environmental benefits.

A few original (to me) points Tilleman makes have to do with the potential for self-parking and the materials requirements of cars.

On the parking front, it is widely believed that autonomous vehicles will sharply decrease parking needs, making everyone’s lives better. But what Tillemann pointed out that I hadn’t considered, is the environmental and time-saving benefits of this. In particular, drivers spend a lot of time circling around their destinations, looking for parking. Eliminating this circling will bring meaningful benefits.

Perhaps a more significant benefit will be the reduction in materials needed to construct cars. As Tillemann writes, “Cars that don’t crash could also be much smaller and lighter, with fewer safety features.”

As I understand it, a lot of the environmental cost of a car comes not even burning fuel for driving, but in the initial construction. If we can make building cars simpler and cheaper, this will ease resource and financial constraints.

Originally published at www.davidincalifornia.com on September 18, 2015.