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

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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’ (s TM) 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. (s F) 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.

13 Responses to “Shai Agassi: First Battery Swap Station Lands In Japan, But Skeptics Remain”

  1. Thomas N. Morrison

    D-batteries, anyone? We’ve been “swapping” batteries as long as there have been batteries, so the idea of swappable batteries in electric cars seem to be a no-brainer. As for swap stations costing $500,000, how much does one think building a regular gas station costs? Duh? Standardization used to be a key feature of many parts of auto(and other machine) manufacturing, so “mandating” standardized battery packs would go a LONG way toward making an electric vehicle infrastucture.

  2. L.Y. Tseng

    The ideas and plans of Better Place are feasible and doable, technically; the only problem is “timing”. Maybe they should start from some unique and quick markets and let the world see and feel all the beauties of EVs. One possibility will be the electric scooter, it’s easy, cheap and highly populated in some markets. They should take a good look of that market.

  3. Robert Gale

    Notice how all the doubters in the article are Better Place competitors? What else do you expect them to say.

    Better Place technology is not pie-in-the-sky, it actually exists. It is going live in several locales over the next few months. Battery swap changes pure (non-hybrid) electric cars from special-purpose vehicles (only trips short enough to do on one charge) to general-purpose vehicles. You could have a non-fossil-fuel-burning vehicle as your only car. The need for oil is one of the most destructive elements in human society (money, pollution, war, terrorism, etc.), but until now there was no realistic way to avoid using oil for transportation. This is our first major opportunity to thumb our noses at the oil cartels. It’s huge.

  4. Ron Groves

    Sue Cischke, Group VP for Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering at Ford Motor Co. sez in the above article that we might blame Ford if our ” battery swap” in our Ford EV at a Better Place station is less than satisfactory (not sure what would make for a bad experience, got a dud battery or something?). That is just barking, do we blame Ford now if we have a bad experience refueling our Ford at a Shell station? I am sure she did not mean to say that, right?

  5. @Ron,
    I appreciate your point. But I don’t understand how all these half-million dollar swap stations are going to be paid for? Aggasi has talked about a monthy service fee in line with what we currently pay for gas every month, but in his case we pay for the use of their batteries and charge stations, etc (?). What if I only really go out of my car’s range once a year? Is it going to be a good deal for me? What if most drivers are like me in that way? I don’t think I want to charged every month for something I rarely if ever need. Unless I just think of it as a lease on the battery pack. It leaves me with more questions then anything.
    I think we ought to consider an on-board generator that runs on something other than fuel. Say- compressed air. High compression air “stations” would likely be MUCH less expensive/tricky than battery swap stations. No need to worry about gas stagnating in a tank, burning in an accident, exploding, and dealing with a complex engine. The tank would be made of carbon fiber and would split on impact, releasing the air harmlessly (so I’ve read) and would not explode. This is just one idea. Better ideas may already be on the drawing board.
    Simplicity should be the aim. Battery swap stations are anything but simple/elegant.

  6. Ron Edwards

    What many fail to realise is that the battery swapping station is not just important for “a quick full”. It enables the battery to be owned by someone other than the car owner. When buying or selling an electric car it then doesnt matter how many miles are on the battery. The battery doesnt have to be paid for upfront. It is a huge enabler of electric cars because of the change in business model opportunity rather than just a convenient fill point.