Battery harmonization will help electric vehicles

Tim Harford’s book highlights the shipping container’s pivotal role in globalizing the economy. Similarly, the electric vehicle (EV) industry could revolutionize transportation with standardized battery design and swapping technology, as demonstrated by Ashok Leyland’s rapid battery replacement system. India, aiming for an all-electric fleet by 2030, could lead this transformation.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

There is an entire chapter in Tim Harford’s book Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy devoted to the shipping container. It seems incongruous that something so simple would feature in a book like this, but Harford argues that this is probably the one invention that made our global economy truly global.

Before containers, cargo ships were loaded manually by longshoremen who hoisted pallets containing the goods into the cargo hold of the ship and then manually arranged them within available space in the cargo hold, poking and pulling at them with steel hooks till all the individual items were snugly stuffed into the curves and contours of the inner cavities of the ship so that they didn’t shift around on the high seas. Apart from being a strenuous job it was incredibly dangerous and in the 1950s, the New York port alone averaged half-a-dozen serious incidents a day.

There was never any disagreement about the fact that it made sense to put transport goods in containers. What was hard to do was build consensus on what the dimensions for those containers should be. Transporters who had to traverse winding mountain roads preferred a shorter, smaller container size while those carrying large cargo across flat roads preferred as big a container as possible to maximize the efficiency of their journey. It took the untiring efforts of Malcom McLean, a trucker utterly convinced of the significant benefits to be gained from adopting a single uniformly sized container, to get the industry to finally agree on the dimensions of our current container. And once the idea caught on, the entire transportation industry was transformed.

Today, nearly all cargo the world over is transported in standardized containers. As a result ships are capable of disgorging their load in hours not days. Humans are only required for nominal supervision as computers decide where each container has to be placed in the hold—favouring the lower portions for heavier containers and the hull section for refrigerated containers where they can be connected to temperature monitors and power. The process is designed for maximum efficiency—every time the crane loads a container on to the ship, it picks up a container for offloading from somewhere else, ensuring the most efficient utilization of each swing of the crane.

Container standardization has had an effect across the entire supply chain—changing the way in which we’ve designed the cranes in our dockyards and constructed the terminals where containers are stacked. It has influenced the length and width of the flatbed carriages on which they are transported by road and rail to their final destination and the design of the warehouses where their contents are stored. It is because these standards are followed uniformly across the world that international transportation has become so efficient.

The electric vehicles (EV) industry is at the same place today as the transportation industry was before McLean swung into action. Automotive manufacturers each have their own approaches towards charging, and even though there is some level of socket standardization across economic regions, we are still far away from achieving the level of global standardization that the industry requires. But perhaps it is worthwhile querying whether socket standardization is at all what we want to focus our attention on.

Building charging infrastructure for electric cars appeals to our path-dependent view of transportation. We are accustomed to filling our cars at a petrol bunk and so the thought of plugging in an EV has a familiar appeal. That said, if done quickly, it would be far more efficient to refuel EVs by replacing depleted batteries with fully charged ones. This is particularly true of the mass transportation sector where buses travel down predictable routes along which swapping infrastructure can be efficiently deployed. At the auto show in Delhi earlier this year, Ashok Leyland showcased a new battery-swapping technology for their electric buses, demonstrating that it was possible to completely replace depleted batteries with new ones in under 3 minutes. These sorts of rapid refuelling technologies will have to be deployed if the mass transportation needs of the country are to be met by electric vehicles.

This being the case, it will make sense for us to leverage the swapping infrastructure that is being established for the mass transportation sector across all vehicle types—from buses and trucks to cars and two wheelers. But before that happens, we will need to standardize battery design and connectivity so that the same swapping infrastructure can be used across multiple vehicle types. If we can get this right, standardization of the shape and size of batteries will do for the EV industry what container standardization did for transportation. It will allow us, regardless of the vehicle we drive, to drive up to a swapping station and replace the batteries in whatever vehicle we drive in just the same way as we fuel our cars today.

Given India’s commitment to becoming all-electric by 2030, we have the opportunity in this country to take the lead in establishing these standards. Doing so will allow our entire automobile industry to build vehicles around a common infrastructure at the scale that is only possible in India. And once we can demonstrate success, we will have developed the blueprint for transportation for the world to follow.