PHOTO CAPTION: The Fluence ZE will be the last electric car Renault builds with swappable batteries.

Renault Shelves Swappable Battery Technology

In the future, says CEO Carlos Ghosn, Renault will only build electric vehicles with fixed batteries.

Published: 05-May-2013

The Danish publication Energi Watch reports that Renault is shelving its electric car battery switching initiative in response to the lack of interest shown in Israel for the concept espoused by Better Place. Chairman Carlos Ghosn said that the French carmaker will, in the future, build only electric vehicles with fixed batteries. While it will continue to offer the Fluence ZE with both fixed and swappable battery capability, which it developed in collaboration with the Palo Alto, California start-up, no new models will offer this feature.

"When you look at the overall trends, we must conclude that replaceable batteries are no longer the main track for electric vehicles. The main track is flat batteries in cars with charging. We believe that people want flexibility in the technology, and we can see that the demand is for rechargeable standard batteries," he said.

The decision would seem to be another nail in Better Place's coffin. Launched to much acclaim in the mid-2000's by Israeli-American entrepreneur Shai Agassi, the company focused its business on selling customers miles instead of cars. The number of miles you drove annually, like minutes used per month on cellphones, determined your monthly lease, which included the installation of a home charging unit. But to give the Renault-built all-electric sedans more flexibility in where they could drive, Agassi and his team developed innovative battery swapping stations that could remove a spent battery and install a new one in less than the time it took to refuel a conventional gasoline car. High tech swap stations were built at various strategic points around Israel so that it was possible to drive from one end of the tiny country to the other and never have to stop for long recharges.

The company officially launched its lease scheme with several hundred Renault Fluence's last year, but never developed the kind of sales numbers it needed. Financial pressures forced Agassi out and led to cut backs in expansion plans in Australia, and now also Denmark, where it built 18 stations for an estimated investment of $200 million. With no new models being manufactured to make use of the swap stations, the company can't expand and it's left with stranded assets. Instead, Better Place in Israel is now focusing on leasing EVs with fixed batteries.

However, battery swapping may not be a dead end. Better Place has partnered with the two of the largest electric power grid operators in the world, China State Grid and China Southern Grid, on developing technical standards for automated battery exchange.

Better Place's Susanne Tolstrup notes that the company is working in China as advisors on an infrastructure demonstration project in Guangzhou, southern China, "where the interest in electric vehicles and battery switch is great."

Given the size of the market in China and the influence of the central government to initiate change, the money invested in battery switching may yet find a future.

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