What is electric car battery swap tech, and why is it important?

A Better Place battery swap station.

Better Place went bankrupt trying to build out the idea; Tesla just unveiled the technology to a live audience. We’re talking about a battery swapping system for an electric car, which isn’t all that technically complicated, but which is a newish concept in the automotive industry.

What is it?

Quite simply, a battery swapping station is a place that an electric car can drive over and an automatic (or possibly even manual) system can open up the bottom of the electric car, remove the depleted battery, and insert a newly fully charged battery in its place. Picture it as robot mechanics giving an electric car a fresh battery.

PHOTOS: Better Place's Battery Swap StationSome electric car makers and tech companies want this option because it is the only super-fast way that an electric car can be charged and thus compete with gasoline cars. To implement this technology the car itself has to be designed to be able to be opened up with a chamber on the bottom, and by swiftly taking off the bolts underneath the car. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said during the launch event that Tesla is using the same machines that it uses in the factory for its swapping stations to swiftly torque the bolts on the underside of the car.

Fast charging stations like the ones that Tesla is deploying can charge an electric car in around 30 minutes, which is obviously considerably longer than it would take to pump gas. A regular electric car charger can take 8 or even 12 hours to fully charge. The range that currently available electric cars can provide is between 100 to 300 miles (at max) — if the range ever gets substantially larger, the constraints on charging become less of a problem, and battery swapping becomes less important.

Who thought of the idea?

Startup Better Place developed this technology several years ago to build out its electric car charging infrastructure. Better Place founder Shai Agassi was a big proponent of battery swapping, and continues to be, even after leaving the company late last year. Unfortunately poor timing, execution (or both) led to Better Place filing for bankruptcy this year.

PHOTOS: Better Place's Battery Swap StationBack when Better Place was developing this technology, Musk was also really interested in battery swapping tech. I know because I asked him about it back then. While most of the big auto companies were ignoring Better Place and battery swapping, Musk was keeping an eye on the tech (and perhaps even had a hand in the original battery swapping idea). That’s why when Tesla built the Model S, they made sure that the battery could be swapped out, in case one day they decided that they wanted to implement it.

Why does Tesla want to do battery swapping now?

Tesla has decided now is the time to unveil its battery swapping plans. What Tesla has going for it is a super hot car that’s become a symbol of luxury for the progressive, liberal, wealthy elite. What Tesla has against it is the nascent stage of the electric vehicle industry and the lack of electric vehicle infrastructure out there. Range anxiety is a very real thing when there’s only a small amount of chargers out there and most of those chargers take a long time to charge the battery.

Tesla Model S battery

Tesla Model S battery

Tesla has to build out electric car infrastructure simply as a way to grow the market for its electric cars. It’s like if Apple launched the iPhone in the very early days of cell phones — it would have to build out some of the cellular networks, too, to get the iPhone experience to work the way they wanted it to in such a nascent environment.

The big question I have is how will Tesla implement battery swapping when most of its customers own their entire car, including the battery, outright. Battery swapping sounded like a good idea for Better Place, because Better Place was offering electricity and battery charging as a service and owned the batteries. If a company owns the battery first, the customer probably won’t care if the battery is swapped in and out (older batteries have considerably less value than newer batteries). Perhaps that’s why Tesla wanted to launch the battery swap service soon after its first wave of Model S have been delivered (the oldest Model S cars and accompanying batteries are only a year old), and not later on after the cars have aged more.

At the same time, Tesla expects that it’ll have a good deal of leases, which it recently launched, for the Model S. Musk has said that in 2014 he expects “leasing will be a big factor” in the U.S., and will be a moderate part of revenue in 2013 in Europe.

What are the hurdles for battery swapping?

For Better Place the hurdles to implementing battery swapping infrastructure lay in convincing auto makers to enable their car batteries to be swapped out. Better Place only offered one lackluster car from Renault when it launched in Israel.

COP15Day4-Fluence2But for Tesla, which is an automaker first and foremost, they’ve already got some hot cars that have swappable batteries. Tesla is also building out its infrastructure in a more proprietary manner — only Model S cars can charge at its Superchargers — so it’s not necessarily worried about working with other automakers on making their cars work with Tesla infrastructure.

The bigger hurdle for Tesla is implementing the battery swapping service so that customers like it and so that it adds value financially for both Tesla and the customer. Because electric cars are at an early stage, the financing — and depreciation of the batteries — isn’t necessarily a known quantity yet. Tesla’s other hurdle is also just maintaining its the sexiness of its cars and brands since you need to have an in-demand product and a growing mass of customers if you’re going to build out a proprietary next work like this.

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