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

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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.

19 Responses to “This is Tesla’s first battery swap station (photos)”

  1. It’s great for those who travel between SF and LA. It would be cost prohibitive to ship the battery and have it reinstalled at a Tesla service location. There may be other unique routes where battery swapping is practical (SFLake Tahoe, for example). For $60 you get two swaps and two full battery charges – it works out to about 12 cents/mile – not crazy at all.

  2. russellleeo

    “I decided to drive down to the battery swap station — about three hours southeast of San Francisco along U.S. 101…”

    The battery swap station is off of I-5, not 101.

    • Stephen Pace

      @Michael Clark: No, this station can only swap Tesla Model S batteries at the moment because the battery is located on the bottom of the car. Toyota RAV4 EV batteries are not located in a place that would allow easy swapping.

  3. You’re missing a trick. This would be an excellent way to distribute higher capacity battery packs, once they become available – an inevitability. Pay to swap into a bigger pack for a trip, and maybe decide to keep it for the difference in price?


    either way seems like elon musk is as self deluded as shai aggasi was. and he’s got his eyes on so many different prizes.
    i’m somehow thinking this marks the top for the stock.

    • Stephen Pace

      @teslark: 1) The swap station pays for itself in the number of additional ZEV credits the Model S qualifies for. It is unlikely to be the primary mode of enabling long distance travel–SuperChargers cover that. 2) Shai Agassi got the idea for Better Place by visiting Tesla. However, as Better Place proved, it is hard to make money owning the most expensive part of the car which also loses range over time. By contrast, Tesla owners own the batteries, so Tesla only has to make enough spare available to enable the swapping and they can charge enough of a premium to force the vast majority of owners to return to pickup their own pack. A lot lower risk proposition than Better Place and as I said, already pays for itself in ZEV credit enablement.

  5. Raphael Chung

    This is for city in high rised apartment bldgs (like China, Hong Kong) that they cannot install charger to charge their car overnight. They drive until the charge is empty then stop by to swap the battery.

    • Stephen Pace

      @Raphael: I don’t know. Hong Kong already has 4 SuperChargers for people who live in high rises without the ability to charge. I think I’d still go for a free thirty minute charge instead of a 5 minute $50 swap given how many miles you realistically drive around Hong Kong. London also has city SuperChargers for the same purpose.

  6. Thomas William Barron

    Everything Tesla does is super cool. EVERY THING.
    I bet no one uses it though. $60 for a fast swap or 40 minutes for a free charge. I will go and get a coffee and maybe even a doughnut as a reward for saving money :)

  7. mardy 930

    What if tesla starts selling the cars without the battery to get the price low. Then you lease the battery from tesla and swap it anywhere in the country without worrying about getting your original battery back. You also wouldn’t have to worry about you battery eventually failling and having to buy a new one. More people could afford to buy a tesla also because the purchase price would be drastically reduced.
    Just a Thought

  8. TheMogget

    The quick-swap thing has always been an afterthought. Most of Tesla’a current owners seem happy enough with superchargers. It is only people who don’t have a Tesla (prospective buyers, the government, the media) that seem really worried about having quick-swaps.