This Is Why Automakers Should Offer Battery Upgrades to EVs and PHEVs

Battery Module With 2170 cells 6 photos
Photo: Kreisel Electric
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I always wanted to have an electric car. I thought I was going to drive an FCEV since the 1990s, but the hydrogen fueling infrastructure and FCEV products did not develop as they should. When I finally bought a car that runs on electricity, it had a battery, a motor, and an engine. However, the range of my plug-in hybrid proved to be insufficient. That led me to wonder why automakers do not offer battery pack upgrades instead of selling a new car.
The reason is obvious, I know: selling battery packs will not be as profitable as selling a completely new vehicle. However, not everybody is willing to buy a new car every year. Most can’t afford that. Some see no sense in doing so when their current vehicle nicely fits most of their needs. My case reflects all of these hypotheses: I can’t, I don’t want, and I see no sense in buying a new PHEV.

I currently own a 2017 BMW 225xe. When I was checking which vehicle would offer me more for my money, it was just perfect. I needed a family car with a reasonable luggage compartment. It could not be too big because I live in a place with really narrow streets and few parking spots. On top of everything, I wanted to save fuel with an electric car.

The 225xe ended up being the most powerful and fastest car I have ever owned. That would be a fantastic plus if I wanted to drive fast. Ironically, if that were my goal, I would not buy a compact minivan.

BMW promised 41 kilometers (25 miles) of electric range when it was released. I discovered that I could run only 25 km (15.5 mi) with it, which meant I had to charge it with any opportunity I had. Without a power plug at home, that was not as easy as it may seem. At the same time, the German carmaker started offering a new battery pack for the revamped 225xe, with a 25% improvement.

Theoretically, it could reach 53 km (33 mi) instead of 41 km. If you consider the actual range is 25 km, you will end up with 31.25 km (19.4 mi) if BMW sold the new 10 kWh battery pack to older 225xe units. It doesn’t. With such a low improvement, it would have to be really affordable for anyone even to consider that.

That means I will eventually have to sell my car if I need more electric range. In other words, I’ll have to get rid of a perfectly good vehicle for my needs just because of the small battery pack. BMW presented the “second-generation” 225e xDrive with a much larger battery pack (14.9 kWh instead of 7.7 kWh, as my car has). The problem is that the new battery pack goes underfloor instead of beside the fuel tank. In other words, it would never fit in my car even if BMW considered selling it to me.

Upgrading batteries would make a lot of sense. Take NIO, for example. If I bought the ES8 with a 75-kWh battery pack and decided it was not enough, the company could allow me to upgrade it to a 100-kWh unit or even a future 150-kWh solid-state battery pack promised for 2022.

With BaaS and its swappable battery pack tech, it is very likely that NIO already offers this sort of upgrade, but what about the other companies? Renault could do that for the ZOE, Nissan for the LEAF, and so forth, especially considering that automakers already realized that battery packs are an essential asset to obtain raw materials for new batteries through recycling.

Volkswagen recently announced it will try to lease its EVs three or more times. The goal is to keep the battery packs as its property for as long as possible. The German carmaker has created a recycling plant in Salzgitter and will use hydrometallurgy to get 95% of cell raw materials back to work. Battery separators are not recyclable yet.

Imagine what the company could do if it offered upgradable battery packs instead. It could recover all battery packs it sold with the e-Golf and keep these cars running for much more time. It could give e-Golfs LFP cells and get the NMC cells back, which have much more expensive components. For the customers, as long as they have more range and can keep driving their cars, that’s all that matters.

Selling improved battery packs as upgrades for a profit could become not only a new revenue stream: it could help carmakers be more sustainable. Manufacturers know that people often need more range but do not need a new car. Why not give these customers the option to keep their vehicles for longer, preventing the use of even more raw materials to build a completely new one?

Since I mentioned solid-state batteries, consider what could happen if car companies opted for selling upgrades with them. Solid-state batteries have the potential to offer twice as much energy density. That means you can have the same range with half the battery pack nowadays necessary or that you can double the range with a solid-state battery of the same size.

In other words, instead of a battery pack for 25 km of range in a PHEV, we could have a unit offering 50 km (31 mi). I’m thinking about my case, obviously, but what about ZOE owners being able to travel 480 km (300 mi) instead of around 240 km (150 mi) the older battery packs offer?

With new technologies, raw material restrictions, the need for more range, and more used batteries for recycling, carmakers should really consider selling battery pack upgrades for their future EVs, whether fully electric cars or plug-in hybrids. Either that or adopting a battery pack swapping system that allows customers to choose the battery pack that suits them better like NIO already does.

If the electric shift offers us the possibility to think of automobiles in an entirely different fashion, the chance to improve their battery packs would be a really welcomed one. It would solve multiple problems with a single solution. It would prevent the need for more mining, reduce the number of vehicles ending up in junkyards, open a new possibility for profits, and, most of all, delay Earth Overshoot Day. The principles of circular economy do not mean to cut earnings from any company: they aim to do that so that we still have an economy and a society to worry about.
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About the author: Gustavo Henrique Ruffo
Gustavo Henrique Ruffo profile photo

Motoring writer since 1998, Gustavo wants to write relevant stories about cars and their shift to a sustainable future.
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