This is Tesla’s first battery swap station (photos)

Last month Tesla announced that it would soon start trialing its first battery swap station in private beta to invited customers, next to its super charger station at Harris Ranch in Coalinga, Calif. Soon after the announcement, customers on Tesla forums started asking each other if anyone had received an invite or used the battery swap site yet — no one seemed to — and one customer posted photos of the site that at the end of 2014 that was under construction.

So this week I decided to drive down to the battery swap station — about three hours southeast of San Francisco along U.S. 101 — to see how far along the site really was. My assessment? It looks like Tesla’s first battery swap station at Harris Ranch is close to being finished. On my visit, I could see that the battery swapping compartment in the ground of the station was constructed and the station’s signs were in place.

Tesla's battery swap station in Coalinga, Calif.
Tesla’s battery swap station in Coalinga, Calif. Shot from the back of the station. Customers enter from the left through the door shown, and exit from the right in this photo.

Tesla’s first battery swap station is located just across the street from its chargers at Harris Ranch, and it’s placed right next to a Shell Station. The station itself appears to be a former car wash that was gutted and converted into enough space for a single Tesla car to get its battery swapped out. There’s already working restrooms at the station, and a picnic table with benches that both likely were already in place to support the gas station and former car wash.

The exit of Tesla's battery swap station.
The exit of Tesla’s battery swap station. Inside a worker is using a service vehicle to carry equipment in and out of the station.

When (if) the site is available to the public, drivers will be able to enter the station through the entrance closest to the road, drive over the battery swap compartment, and then leave through the exit farthest from the road. Tesla has said that the swapping process could take a few minutes, and potentially less time than it takes to add gasoline to a traditional car. Tesla’s super charging stations can take 20 to 30 minutes to add about 150 miles worth of charge.

A shot from the entrance to the station looking in. The battery swapping compartment is in the ground.
A shot from the entrance to the station looking in. The battery swapping compartment is in the ground.

Battery swapping isn’t exactly advanced technology. After a car drives over the battery compartment in the ground, a robotic arm (the same type used on Tesla’s factory floor in Fremont) will reach up and turn the bolts on the bottom of the car, remove the discharged pack, replace it with a fully charged pack, and reconnect the bolts.

Tesla created the Model S to have a swappable battery from a very early stage in its design, in case it later wanted to implement this technology. Tesla’s CTO JB Straubel told me back in 2011 that if battery swapping ended up becoming common for electric cars, then Tesla will be prepared. Making the battery swappable also made it easier to install the battery on the manufacturing line, Straubel said.

A closer shot of the ground battery swap compartment.
A closer shot of the ground battery swap compartment, at Tesla’s first battery swap station in Coalinga, Calif.

Tesla’s first battery swapping station is quite small. You can walk around it in less than 30 seconds and Musk has said that it will be operating in limited private beta. The technology is not yet receiving an aggressive investment and push by the company. Each battery station, though, reportedly could cost about $500,000 to build.

Some critics, like this Forbes column, are speculating that Tesla has built this battery swap station so that it can re-qualify for zero-emission vehicle credits in California. Tesla can qualify for new credits if it has a rapid refueling station, that is sufficiently used, according to the report. Tesla used ZEV credits back in mid 2013 to help it reach its first quarter profit, and 12 percent of its then quarterly revenue, or $68 million, came from selling ZEV credits.

The entrance to Tesla's battery swap station in Coalinga, Calif.
The entrance to Tesla’s battery swap station in Coalinga, Calif.

While the swapping tech isn’t rocket science, the business model and the battery swapping pricing could be more difficult to figure out. Customers could pay $50 to $60 for a battery swap, and then either pick up the fully charged battery on the way back, pay extra to have the battery shipped to them, or pay the difference in the lifespan of their battery compared to the new one.

A sign at the entrance of Tesla's battery swap station.
A sign at the entrance of Tesla’s battery swap station.

Tesla is just starting to experiment with battery swapping, but the idea of battery swapping isn’t a new idea, and a lot of people think this could be an important option for electric cars and vehicles one day. Better Place is the most famous company that tried to tackle battery swapping, but unfortunately the company wasn’t able to execute on that vision and filed for bankruptcy after failing to sign up enough customers to buy its cars and use its infrastructure. New startup Gogoro is looking to build a business off of battery swapping and electric scooters in Asia megacities.