Tesla Debuts Battery Swapping Technology

By · June 21, 2013

Tesla Battery Swapping

Tesla was able to complete two Model S battery pack swaps in less time than it takes to fill up an Audi.

It was the rumble in the gas lane last night at Tesla’s cavernous warehouse in Hawthorne, Calif. CEO Elon Musk presided over an event meant to show off Tesla’s battery swapping technology. While it is cool technology, questions remain, such as whether there is a good business case for battery swapping and, if many are in line for a swap, if it will even save all the time Musk claims it will.

The event started with a timed “race” between a car filling up at a gas station (the car was an Audi) and a live battery swap on a Tesla Model S. Of course the Model S won. Indeed, the first swap took only around 90 seconds so another swap was completed while the gas was still pumping. “We are working to improve” the battery swap time,” said Musk playfully.

“Our goal here was to eliminate the objections people have” to owning a pure electric vehicle, he said. “Hopefully this is about convincing people finally that electric cars are the future.”

Battery swapping will eventually be available at all of Tesla’s Supercharger stations. The California stations will get them first, and should be in place by the fourth quarter of this year, said Musk. The I-5 corridor on the west coast and the Boston-D.C. corridor will follow.

The battery swapping equipment will cost about $500,000 to install at each location, said Musk. Owners will be able to sit in their car as the swap takes place underneath them. “The machine to do the pack replacement was complex; it required lots of engineering,” said Musk.

Tesla is building a network of Supercharger stations that will half fill a battery in just 20 minutes. There are eight stations operating now; Telsa plans to have 27 by this summer and to cover 98 percent of the U.S. and Canada by 2015.

Managing the billing for the battery swaps sounds complex. The cost of the swap is meant to “match what you would have paid to fill up with gas,” said Musk. So it will vary in each location. Tesla figured a tank size of about 15 gallons, which is pretty small.

Tesla owners will have the option of returning the battery and receiving their old battery back or keeping the swapped battery, he said. “Think if it like a rental pack,” he said. “You can return it or be billed for the difference in value.”

As for keeping track of the warranty on batteries if they are swapped around, Musk didn’t seem to think that would be a problem either.

“If you get a new pack, it will depend on the time left” on that pack, he said. Tesla batteries have an 8-year warranty.

There are issues that Tesla seems happy to ignore right now. What if many Tesla owners arrive at a station at the same time wanting a battery swap? And how about storing all those batteries? Musk said Tesla would initially aim to have 50 batteries at each station.

The economic viability of battery swapping is also uncertain. Better Place wasn’t able to make it work, after all. “Better Place was better at the marketing than the engineering,” said Musk.

But in a conversation with PluginCars before the press conference, when asked about the viability of a battery swap business model Musk replied, “We’ll have to see.” Then he added, “We have to try it.”

New Jersey-based Model S owner Mike DeSimone, CEO of Desimone Group Investments, a clean tech angel investment group, said he would probably use battery swapping “rarely.” Charging is free and swapping costs money, he pointed out.

But, he concluded, “I believe that the availability of battery swapping will remove one of the last objections to owning an EV, AND it will be a very useful service in certain situations. It will also be a huge factor for folks who live in high rise buildings, etc. without access to private charging.”

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