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Summary:

Tesla and Better Place might seem like swell partners, given the EV startup connection, but think again. A Tesla VP says the companies look at batteries fundamentally differently.

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Electric vehicle maker Tesla has designed its electric sedan the Model S around the placement, size and capacity of the car’s battery pack, the company explained on a rare factory tour this week. Tesla has designed the battery to fit underneath the bottom of the Model S, making the underside of the car completely smooth, and even enabling Tesla to swap out the battery in a minute, according to Peter Rawlinson, VP and Chief Engineer for Vehicle Engineering at Tesla.

But does that mean Tesla is interested in working with Better Place, the electric vehicle charging startup that has based its business model around battery swapping? Uh, not so much. During the Q&A session of the factory tour Rawlinson said that while the Model S battery is designed to be swappable, Tesla’s philosophy is very different than Better Place’s idea to make battery forms standardized.

We think the form of the battery is integral to the design of the car, said Rawlinson. For example the battery shape, size and weight of the Model S will be different than the Roadster. Basically Tesla doesn’t think batteries for different electric cars should be standardized in form and size. It’s like if all internal combustion cars had the same engine size, but engine size is inherently linked to performance, which should be variable for vehicles, noted Rawlinson.

“Different batteries suit different cars. It’s far too simplistic to look at batteries as isolation,” said Rawlinson.

So there you have it. If you thought Tesla and Better Place should be BFFs because they’re both EV startups, well, think again.

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  1. Tesla is wrong in thinking that batteries should be of different sizes to suit different performance needs.
    That variable can be controlled through software and will be done. Standardized batteries is like having gasoline standardized to be 87 octane. The analogy that Tesla is giving will not sustain.
    Batteries need to be standard size and form, that is necessary for a sustainable recyclable power plant.
    If they are standardize these batteries when their half life is reached can be re-purposed for storing electricity at wind farms and in homes as well.
    Tesla’s is trying to play the game the of the way established Automakers of the past have played.

  2. It’s a tricky problem. Swapping battery packs are a close analogy to swapping out fuel tanks. Forcing every vehicle to have the same size and shape fuel tank would be very limiting. As expensive as batteries are, standardization of some form is badly needed to help drive down cost.

    An alternate solution may require breaking battery packs down into smaller standardized module packages. This idea has its own problems in terms of additional connectors, cost, and possible reliability issues.

  3. The premise of this story, and of Tesla’s comments, is factually incorrect. Better Place has made no effort to get car companies to build standardized packs. The Better Place robotic removal system is designed to handle any type of battery pack. And the Better Place strategy includes keeping up to ten battery packs of each type in storage in its switch stations. Thus a typical Better Place battery switch station could handle dozens of different types of batteries, each with its own form factor. The only requirement for compatibility with a Better Place station is that the pack be removable. Thus Tesla’s vehicle is already compatible with Better Place’s infrastructure, even if Tesla’s employees don’t realize it.

    1. BP may have designed their handlers to be very flexible. That’s no guarantee they can remove and reinstall any battery pack. Standardization of at least the fastening systems would help BP a lot. One might imagine RFID tags that identify the attachment configuration to the handler so that it knows what to do.

      The battery stocking model is a lot like a tire shop. They can try to keep a variety of inventory around, but there is only so much that can be stocked due to both space and cost constraints. A set of four tires costs $100. – $1000. A single battery pack costs $10,000 – $20,000. It doesn’t take very many battery packs to burden each shop with millions in inventory that may move very slowly.

      When a tire shop doesn’t have the tires a customer wants, they can get them in a day or two from distribution. That model doesn’t work for battery refills. The best that could be done for out of stock charged batteries would be a partial fast charge, which would still take at least 30 minutes. That’s tough to compete against a gas station with a regular or extended range hybrid.

      BP is making bold steps. I see too many difficult barriers for them to succeed. I hope they prove me wrong.

      1. Yep! It’s like tires. I know my local Walmart has lotsa tires and in the evening, when everyone is gone, this inventory of tires store cheap night time energy. During the day, they release what excess they have during peak hours for a profit! And if necessary they can migrate the charge from batteries which appear to have little demand to those which are in demand.

  4. An important but of vehicle engineering related to swappable battery packs of different capacity (and weight) is how will the suspension of the Model S cope with a change of several 100 kg between the largest and smallest pack Tesla say they’ll offer?

    Swapping your 42 kWh pack for a 70 kWh pack (it’s almost double the weight of the smaller pack) for a weekend trip while loading the car full with all the family and their luggage would be equal to converting the Model S into a fully laden truck.

    1. I would imagine that a car of this cost (and prestige) would likely use the significant CPU power on board to control the suspension dynamically. Therefore the swapping of batteries, even between types would be managed by the car’s CPUs. That also means a much smoother or aggressive ride based on the driver’s preferences. Just a guess.

  5. The thing I find weird is the fact that a “car” company like Tesla, which only recently began “thinking” about swappable batteries, would make comments about a company which was founded on the idea of swappable batteries of different sizes and shapes (as long as it has a flat surface and manages the connection itself). This other company (BetterPlace), currently has a battery swap station working (for the last 180 days) in Tokyo, swapping batteries for taxis. It just so happens to be dealing with an actual car company which has the design, sale and support of 100,000’s of cars, over many decades and around the world, under it’s belt. If NISSAN/RENAULT and the governments of Japan, Israel, Denmark, Ontario, Australia, Hawaii and San Francisco are comfortable with the battery switching technology of Better Place, why wouldn’t Tesla?

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