PHOTO CAPTION: Prototype Better Place battery exchange robot takes under 2 minutes to remove depleted battery and replace with fully charged one.

Electric Car Battery Swapping Gains Credence

Tesla's Model S electric sedan will incorporate battery swapping capability. Beijing is considering installing battery swapping stations.

Published: 01-Feb-2010

PAPILLION, NE -- One of the overlooked elements in Tesla Motors' recent SEC filing for its upcoming IPO is the statement that its next electric car, dubbed the Model S, is being engineering to allow its battery pack to be swapped. Specifically the S1 form states, "The Model S battery pack is also being designed with the capability of being rapidly swapped out at specialized commercial battery pack exchange facilities that we anticipate may be available in the future."

While the idea of swapping batteries is as old as the electric car itself -- early electric taxis more than a century ago used this approach to extend their operations -- for their part, the major carmakers, with the exception of Renault, have dismissed the idea as impractical.

But with the demonstration last May in Tokyo of a robotic battery exchange system built for Better Place, the electric car service provider founded by Shai Agassi, the concept has started to gain some, albeit, slippery traction.

Better Place's business model revolves around the sale of travel miles (kilometers) to its customers, rather than vehicles, per se. Based on a cellular telephone-like service contracts, customers are provided with an electric car built specifically for Better Place by Renault, along with charging stations for their home and place of work. Additionally, robotic battery exchange stations will be strategically located so that a depleted battery can be swapped for a freshly recharged one as part of the service contract. The whole exchange process takes less than 2-minutes, assuming, there aren't other cars ahead of you, like at a busy car wash.

Better Place's efforts to interest carmakers other than the Renault Nissan Alliance have been met with largely disinterest, until now, it would appear. While Better Places' Jason Wolf says Telsa's plans for the Model S are in no way connected to Better Place's system, it does indicate a shift in thinking, as does recent news out of Beijing.

Peoples Daily reports that the Municipal Science & Technology Commission has begun studies on how to recharge electric taxis and passenger cars. In addition to the likely construction of fast charging stations, the Commission is also looking at battery exchange where, "the staff will remove the car battery and directly replace it with a new fully charged battery." The paper notes, however, that this would require maintaining a large inventory of replacement battery packs, representing a significant investment in costly inventory.

Better Places' exchange system, now completing production engineering, presently recognizes two different battery pack designs. Whether it can also be tailored to handle other manufacturer's packs is uncertain, which raises the key sticking point for companies like Toyota, GM and VW. A proliferation of different battery pack configurations would necessitate the installation of separate battery exchanges at hugely redundant costs, or would compel the adoption of a narrow set of battery pack standards, limiting manufacturer vehicle design opportunities.

Last year only one carmaker considered going this route. Now it would appear a second has signed on, and should Beijing decide to follow, that would cascade down through the entire Chinese EV auto industry. Could U.S. and European manufacturers then afford to ignore the trend, is the key question?

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