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Electric car battery swap: NIO network explained

NIO already has an established battery-swap network in China, but now it's coming to Europe - and we’ve tried it...

Battery swapping in electric cars is a relatively new idea. Very few manufacturers have tried it, and even fewer have attempted to commercialise the concept. But NIO – a Chinese carmaker with a strong presence in its home market – is coming to Europe, and bringing its innovative Power Swap technology with it.

The idea is simple: instead of waiting 30 minutes or more at a rapid-charging station, NIO drivers can turn up and have their battery swapped out for a fresh one – almost completely autonomously – in less than 10 minutes. The technology is tried-and-tested in China; 860 stations are already active, together carrying out up to 30,000 swaps per day.

While the batteries are completely removable, any NIO model can also be topped up at a regular home or public charging point at speeds of up to 180kW – a 10-80% charge is thought to take around half an hour.

While there aren’t currently any NIO swap stations in the UK, European plans are afoot. The first Power Swap station is already operating just outside Oslo, and the brand has recently announced plans to open a factory in Hungary from September 2022. This site, NIO says, will cover “the manufacturing and after-sales service of battery swapping stations”. It claims the location will eventually bring a “better ownership experience for European users”. 

Keen to see what NIO’s Power Swap service is all about, we’ve already been to Norway to have a go; read on for our experiences, plus all you need to know about the NIO Power Swap network.

Where can I find NIO battery-swap stations?

There are currently no NIO battery swap stations in the UK. In fact, at the time of writing, there was just one location in the whole of Europe – in Lier, around 40 kilometres south of the Norwegian capital Oslo.

However, NIO already has over 860 swap sites in China, and its European expansion plans are bold. It hopes to have the whole of Norway and much of Northern Europe covered before too long – a feat made possible by the new swap station factory in Hungary, due to open its doors in September 2022.

While NIO won’t confirm a timeline for when it intends to bring cars here, it’s likely the UK will form part of the maker’s second wave – arriving after it has established sites in Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.

How much does a NIO battery swap cost?

NIO doesn’t currently sell cars in the UK, nor does it have any battery-swap stations outside of China or Norway. However, using the Norwegian price structure as a guide, we’re able to estimate how much a swap might cost a NIO driver looking to replace their battery on the road, should the service be offered to British buyers in the future.

As it stands, customers who lease a NIO ES8 (an Audi e-tron-sized family SUV) in Norway benefit from the company’s Battery as a Service (BaaS) initiative. The basic subscription includes two full battery swaps or up to 200kWh of rapid charging per month, and anything over this costs extra; in Europe, NIO charges €0.20/kWh, plus a €10 flat fee for using the swap station. In theory, then, the maximum cost for a 100kWh battery swap stands at €30 – roughly half of what you’d expect to pay at a conventional rapid charger.

But these costs are on top of the basic lease you pay for the car. The ES8 is priced from €51,000 (roughly £42,700) without the battery – or €60,000 outright. Go for the lease option and you’ll then pay a subscription fee of between €146 and €209 depending on the level of service you’ve paid for.

NIO battery swap: review

Experiencing a NIO battery swap firsthand isn’t as crazy or dramatic as you might think. The process is actually quite simple and relatively uneventful, if we’re being honest. 

You can reserve a battery in advance using the car’s infotainment system, but while this guarantees you a slot, it doesn’t pull you to the front of the queue. So, should there be other NIO customers waiting when you arrive, you still need to wait in line.

The car recognises the swap station as you pull up, and you can initiate the process anywhere within 200 metres of it. All you need to do is park in a designated box, before hitting a few buttons on the central screen – handing control to the car’s self-parking system. At this point, you remove your hands from the wheel (and your feet from the pedals) before the car positions itself within the station.

Wasting no time, the car powers off before automatically raising 50mm. The swap machine removes the 10 screws holding the battery in place, lowering it from the bottom of the car, before dropping the vehicle gently back to the ground. The used battery is put to one side, before a fully charged (to 90% to protect longevity) one is taken from the ‘battery hotel’ and positioned back in the car. Those 10 screws are laser-guided back into place and tightened automatically.

Aside from a few clunks and clicks, and the slightly unusual sensation being lifted into the air only for the lifeblood of your car to drop out the bottom, the process is completely free of drama. As soon as the car reawakens and the green light illuminates within the station, you’re free to drive out; start to finish, the whole thing takes less than six minutes.

The question is, is NIO needlessly complicating things? Have electric-car drivers made their peace with rapid charging? And how many regularly do long enough journeys to make use of two monthly battery swaps? One Ford Mustang Mach-E driver told me that while she thought the idea was “good”, she had concerns about how long it’d take to get the network up and running. “I’m used to charging my car and grabbing a coffee while I wait,” she added.

Maybe battery swapping is better targeted at petrol and diesel drivers who’ve not yet made the switch? One Volvo owner said: “[Battery swapping] sounds really interesting. I’d want to make sure five minutes didn’t become 50 due to a backlog of other cars, but in principle I’d be interested.”

But if the scale and pace at which NIO has implemented the technology across China is anything to go by, any concerns about the brand’s European rollout are likely to be silenced pretty quickly. Furthermore, if the maker can sell the technology to third parties, it could open up its stations to non-NIO drivers. Until then, its scalability is limited.

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