Shai Agassi: First Battery Swap Station Lands In Japan, But Skeptics Remain

UPDATED: As automakers hash out electric vehicle charging standards, startups like Coulomb Technologies and Better Place are starting to install the charging infrastructure for electric vehicles in forward-thinking cities. But when it comes to something a little more, well, not standard, like Better Place’s planned battery swap stations, the rollout of the first infrastructure takes more time and is more complicated. This morning, at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference, Better Place founder and CEO Shai Agassi, said that the startup has installed its first battery swap station in Japan (Yokohama, according to the company), and Agassi gave a sneak peek at details of what the swap station would look like.

Agassi, who said the swap stations will look a lot like a car wash, showed off a schematic of how the battery will be swapped out from underneath the vehicle. There will be a swappable “pancake style” battery pack located underneath the vehicle between the axles, away from crash zones and designed to not interfere with passenger accommodations or storage volumes, according to Agassi’s slide. Keeping the battery underneath also keeps the vehicle’s center of mass lower than comparable EVs, and Better Place has developed a “patented latching mechanism” to swap out the battery pack. Better Place is working with A123Systems on a custom flat lithium-ion battery for the prototype, Better Place spokesperson Joe Paluska confirmed with us, and each swap station will cost on the order of $500,000.

Agassi emphasized the speed of his company’s swapping stations and said that on average a customer would probably need to visit the battery swap station about 10 times a year. Paluska told us after the talk that the battery swap out would take just 40 seconds, and that for a battery demo that the company is planing for mid-May in Japan, Better Place had to actually to slow down the process to 1 minute and 20 seconds, to more easily show the demo-watchers. The idea behind that battery swap stations is that customers taking short trips can charge up at charging stations sprinkled throughout cities and downtown areas, but for longer trips customer will head to the battery swap stations. Agassi said on a panel after his talk that the company’s first planned electric vehicle infrastructure in Israel will launch with 10100 battery swap stations (Update: Thought I heard 10 in Agassi’s speech, but Better Place says it’s actually 100 for the Israel launch.)

The plan has a lot of skeptics, particularly in the car-maker camp. Henrik Fisker, founder of plug-in hybrid vehicle startup Fisker Automotive, said that the battery swap idea might not be able to make it to mainstream, given that some car makers wouldn’t want to put the battery underneath, say in the case of a sports car that needs to be low to the ground.

Bill Reinert, the National Manager for Toyota Motor Sales’ Advanced Technology Vehicle Group, pointed out two possible barriers to battery swapping. Reinert said that an electric vehicle battery pack needs to be weather-tight to keep water out, and that the battery pack seals are not traditionally designed to be taken on and off all the time like they would supposedly need to for a swap station. In addition, Reinert said that cooling and heating batteries in the swapping system could prove difficult.

Sue Cischke, Group VP for Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering at Ford Motor Co. said that any car product that Ford works with would have to provide the same amount of reliability as Ford’s products. She pointed out that if there is an issue with the battery exchange, and the consumer has a bad experience, then they will blame Ford, not necessarily Better Place.

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