Battery Swapping Revisited: Tesla Keeps Tech Alive

Two-for-one: Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk demonstrated how two of his company's cars could receive power-replenishing battery swaps in less than the time it required to fill one car's gasoline tank.
Two-for-one: Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk demonstrated how two of his company’s cars could receive power-replenishing battery swaps in less than the time required to fill one car’s gasoline tank.

No, you’re not experiencing déjà vu. We recently wrote in another article about the future and fate of car battery swapping technology, in the wake of pioneering firm Better Place’s bankruptcy filing.

Turns out that, as we speculated might happen, electric car powerhouse Tesla Motors did in fact announce plans to unroll the technique for its own customers.

In a recent demonstration event, Tesla drove one of its model S sedans onto a stage and showed its battery being automatically exchanged. Total elapsed time: about 90 seconds. For a bit of added theatrical effect, company chief executive Elon Musk narrated a split screen monitor showing a helper filling up the gasoline tank of a late-model Audi  (at a filling station somewhere in Los Angeles).

In the time it took to fill the gas swiller, two Model S cars had performed the battery swap on the stage with Musk, with plenty of time left over.

“Hopefully this is what convinces people finally that electric cars are the future,” Musk said.

As a quick recap: battery swapping lets an electric car driver simply switch battery packs when system energy is low. This typically takes a few minutes (or less), as opposed to having to wait several hours to receive a complete charge by plugging into a more conventional electrical charger. To be efficient, low-cost, and viable, battery swapping stations would automate just about everything involved in the process.

If this model caught on, it would be a huge deal for several reasons. Gasoline stations and the extensive infrastructure of fuel buyers and shippers that service them would play a much smaller role in our lives. Certain environmental hazards, such as combustion-related air quality and (and thus respiratory) problems and ground contamination from defective gasoline station storage tanks would diminish. It could enable more flexible financing, including more affordable leasing, that makes electric vehicles easier to obtain for the masses.

As for how to make money on such a scheme, it appears Tesla will charge about the price of a gasoline fill-up for each battery swap a customer makes at one of its “Tesla” stations. The currently offered free plug-in charging, which can take 30 minutes or more, would remain at no charge.

Musk said that the big choice for its customers, then, would be if they preferred “free” or “fast” when choosing how best to recharge while on the road.

For electric car buyers and manufacturers, the battery is the single most expensive and worrisome component of the vehicle. Much like an ordinary car’s engine, the battery life in effect determines the economically practical life of the car. By swapping batteries in an electric vehicle as part of the business model, consumers could, potentially, have to replace their cars far less often.

Just because Tesla’s doing it doesn’t mean that battery swapping is the end-all cure for the electric car range problem. Under Tesla’s model, battery swapping would still have some thorny limitations. For one, the technology only works for Tesla’s current and possibly future models – but not other manufacturers’ electric vehicles. Still, you have to start somewhere.

What do you think – will other manufacturers follow suit and make batteries easily interchangeable? Should they?

  • A good car to buy. The range is amazing and we are waiting for the low-cost model also… I would guess that no one would like to buy a gas car after using this…

    • Akweli Parker

      Thanks for leaving a comment. Tesla certainly deserves credit for developing a technology the industry “leaders” said could never happen. Let’s hope their example encourages others to follow suit!