Watch History (Revolution or Flop?) as Better Place Unveils Battery Swap Station


Electric vehicle infrastructure company Better Place is planning on using largely standard technology to deliver its electric vehicle dreams: car companies’ plug-in vehicles and basic charging stations. But one of the startup’s key technology differentiators is its battery swap station, and Better Place thinks by sprinkling swap stations at the edge of communities it’ll solve the problem of the short range of electric vehicles. So what technological feat has gone into the production of the battery swap station? Well, you can have a look-see Tuesday night at 10:30 p.m. Pacific time, when Better Place will be showing off a live video feed on its web site of a demonstration of its first battery swap station in Yokohama, Japan.

Prepare to be underwhelmed. It’s basically a “scissor lift,” explained Sven Thesen, who’s in charge of communications and technology for Better Place, at an energy conference at UC Berkeley last week. Well, a more expensive version, as each swap station will cost on the order of $500,000. As we learned through a schematic at the Fortune Magazine conference in April, the swappable “pancake-style” battery pack, currently made by lithium-ion startup A123Systems, gets taken out underneath the vehicle through an automated process. Better Place designed the battery to be located between the axles, away from crash zones, and placed so it wouldn’t interfere with passenger accommodations or storage volumes. The company also says keeping the battery underneath keeps the vehicle’s center of mass lower than comparable EVs (other car makers and competitors say that the design eliminates any low rider-type vehicles for their subscription service).

The battery swap station is one of the most controversial parts of Better Place’s plan. But Sidney Goodman, vice president of automotive alliances for Better Place, told us that skipping the battery exchange piece altogether would mean ditching the mass market. If drivers can’t top off a battery in five minutes, he says, customers just won’t adopt electric vehicles at the mass scale that Better Place needs them to in order to make its business work. The demo shown tonight won’t even take that long — one and a half minutes, the company told us, and they added that they had to slow down the swap process to give viewers enough time to digest it. So after dinner, grab some popcorn and don’t miss what could be either history in the making or a piece of ho-hum tech from an overeager startup.

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