Better Place's Tokyo Taxi Battery Excange Program Ends Without a GlitchBy John O'Dell August 6, 2010
By Terril Yue Jones, Contributor
TOKYO - Tucked into a nondescript corner of central Tokyo's Toranomon business district is a conceptually simple but technology formidable experiment that could lead to a sweeping makeover of how taxis, and potentially other vehicles, function in sprawling, crowded cities.
Blue-and-white electric taxi stands out on streets of Tokyo's fashionable Roppongi district. Special markings told customers they'd chosen a swappable battery cab.
For the past three months a trio of electric-powered taxis have been ferrying customers around Japan's capital, then swinging by a battery-exchange station a few times a day to switch out depleted batteries before heading back out into Tokyo's concrete canyons.
The companies behind this experiment hope it will persuade drivers, customers, bean counters and environmentalists that the system works and can eliminate pollution from the 60,000 cabs that ply Tokyo's streets - more cabs than in New York, London and Paris combined - and from millions more in other cities around the world.
We visited the setup once again as the test period was winding down last month to check up on how the experiment has gone, what's been learned and what the future may hold.
Better Place's modular Tokyo battery exchange station is a prototype for stations to be built throughout Israel and Denmark - and, the company hopes, the first of many in Japan.
"Interest has been far greater than we anticipated, particularly outside Japan," said Kiyotaka Fujii, president of project organizer Better Place Asia Pacific Japan, the Asian branch of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Better Place, a provider of EV charging and battery replacement networks and related services.
Better Place is launching nationwide battery exchange systems in Israel and Denmark next year in conjunction with French automaker Renault. It teamed up with Renault's Japanese partner, Nissan Motor Co.; Nihon Kotsu, Tokyo's largest taxi company; Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry; and Massachusetts-based battery maker A123Systems to operate the Tokyo trial program at the invitation of Japanese government officials.
The trial ended last weekend but could resume, or even be expanded, once the project operators have parsed all the data that's been collected. We're getting hints that an announcement abut the project's future could come by the end of the month.
City planners and taxi company reps from a host of countries visited the facility in the three months it operated, Fujii said.
All three of the Nihon Kotsu taxis with swappable batteries lined up at the Better Place battery exchange station on the program's opening day in April.
The project, designed to generate real-world operating data and test the reliability of Better Place's battery exchange system, paves the way for a similar test in Israel later this year, prior to the commercial launch there and in Denmark by late 2011.Only One Tow
Although Tokyo's a huge city with a huge taxi fleet, the project was a modest one. Only three Nihon Kotsu vehicles - all Nissan Dualis models (that's the Rogue in the U.S.) - were converted to the battery-exchange model, with a fourth used as display.
Drivers monitored all their data, including their location and amount of battery charge remaining, through an Apple iPhone mounted on the dashboard; Better Place and Nihon Kotsu employees monitored the same information on large wall-mounted screens at the charging station. The data even relayed the taxis' speed at any moment in real time.
Early reports indicate that except for an incident early on when a cabbie pushed his luck and ran out of juice before he could get back to the battery station - necessitating a humiliating tow - the program was conducted without any hitches. The cabs conducted thousands of trips with no breakdowns or lengthy out-of-service periods; operating costs were far cheaper than for internal combustion models, and the battery exchange station functioned smoothly.
Except for that one incident, here's how the system worked:
When the cabs' battery charges got low, the drivers made a quick trip into the narrow street where the battery exchange station waited and drove, sometimes with a paying customer on board, up onto onto a set of raised steel tracks straddling a pit that contained the battery exchange mechanism.
The modular station, installed in just a week last April, is highly automated. A platform slides under the car and rises; the steel carrier in which the used battery pack is mounted is automatically unscrewed from the vehicle and lowered. A new battery slides into place and its carrier is secured before the taxi drives off - the whole process taking little more than one minute, as shown in the video below. The depleted batteries are recharged and stored for re-use in a temperature-controlled facility alongside the exchange platform.
The process does away with the need for an overnight charge to juice up a plug-in EV. Even the vaunted 20-30-minute EV "quick charge" isn't needed.
Better Place founder and CEO Shai Agassi maintains that a properly placed network of such battery-exchange stations would eliminate the two main drawbacks of today's EVs - long recharge times and limited range.
Making Taxi Business Exciting
Better Place and Nihon Kotsu say the program has gone well and yielded a wealth of data. "They're the first battery-exchange taxis in the world, so we've gotten a lot of questions," Fujii says. "We get a chance to be on the cutting edge of what's otherwise a monotonous business."
What makes the business exciting to Fujii these days is the opportunity to make a quantum leap in how a taxi business operates, and to deliver to society not only new technology but a new way of thinking about technology - vehicle powerplants that can be replaced several times a day.
The environmental argument is compelling as well.
Though taxis represent only 2 percent of Tokyo's cars, they are responsible for 20% of vehicle CO2 emissions. At any given time, half of all of the city's 60,000 taxis are circulating around never-sleeping Tokyo, seeking customers.
A single internal-combustion taxi produces 29 tons of CO2 a year and most of it can be eliminated by going electric, says Ryuji Kaneda, director of Nihon Kotsu's Sales and Operations Division.
But even though Better Place sees battery exchange as a way to end range anxiety, Kaneda's chief concern was just that:
"What's difficult with this system is that with today's batteries you can only drive 80-100 kilometers (50-60 miles), so you have to switch out batteries often, and some customers can't go as far as they need," he told us in an interview. "So we'd like a little more range."
The batteries from A123 Systems are 17 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion cells, and Fujii said Nissan is working on a 24 kWh battery that would extend the range of a Dualis/Rogue-sized car to to 90-plus miles.
A Taxi Driver's POV
Although some customers had to be turned away because their destination was too far for the swappable-battery taxis, project organizers' initial concern that the taxi drivers would find swapping out the batteries a hassle didn't materialize. Although it gets done more frequently, changing a battery takes a fraction of the time required to fill a gas tank, so drivers didn't log any additional down time.
"Yes you have to do it frequently, but it goes by very fast, so I've found it hasn't really affected my business," taxi driver Yasuhiro Kobayashi said about the three, sometimes four trips he made into the Toranomon district each day to switch out his power pack.
In the video interview below, Kobayashi, 23 and a driver with Nihon Kotsu for three years, says he appreciated the electric taxis' quick acceleration, smooth and quiet ride, and ability to track information via the iPhone, including the locations of the other two taxis.
"Compared to the other taxis I've driven, it's a very good ride, and easy to drive. There's not much lurching around, and customer reaction is quite good" he said.
Nihon Kotsu expects to convert more of its fleet to EVs, and most if not all the company's taxis could be electric in 10 years, Kaneda says. The challenge is to electrify all types of vehicles the company uses, including limousines and minivans. The company is also studying the upcoming Nissan Leaf plug-in EV, as well as gas-electric hybrid vehicles, of which it is currently using about 200.
The costs for the battery-swap project's backers are considerable. For the test project, the Japanese government shouldered the bulk of the investment, including the cost of the $500,000 battery exchange station.
Planning for Profit
During the test period, customers could ride in the EV taxi for as little as 710 yen (about eight dollars, the minimum fare in central Tokyo) and could even ride through the battery-swap process, though the meter continued to run if they did so.
Three taxis and one battery exchange station don't represent a business plan that breaks even. If the project gets green-lighted for Tokyo in the future, Better Place's medium-term view is to build 50 to 100 changing stations, including stations at Haneda Airport, Tokyo's mostly domestic airfield, and in densely populated areas in Tokyo's northwest and eastern suburbs.
A big question is acceptance by the public.
"I think it's very interesting, but my question is how much is the cost project-wise for the companies?," said Jun Otuska, a Tokyo businessman who works in biometrics marketing and travels by taxi every day. "There is only one battery station, so if they build up many stations, it will be a big investment. But ecology-wise, it would be a very good investment."
Otsuka was also somewhat skeptical about convenience. "If you are in a hurry, I couldn't wait for this kind of battery change," he says. "But concept-wise I think it will appeal to Japanese."
In all, Better Place estimates, it would take about 200 stations to serve Tokyo. With 200 taxis per station as a break-even model, that's enough to serve 40,000 cabs, or two-thirds of Tokyo's fleet and far more than the 1,600 that Nihon Kotsu operates. Many other taxi fleets would have to come on board.
"The great aspect of this system is that you hardly need any time to change the battery, so we saw that it was very appropriate for use with taxis," says Kaneda, who would like to see the Tokyo test program extended with additional vehicles. "Overall there's not much loss in time compared with gasoline or LPG (liquid petroleum gas, or propane) vehicles."
Kobayashi, the driver, said he internalized his batteries' capabilities and quickly was able to sense whether he could make a requested trip.
If a request would take him too far away from the charging station to guarantee he'd have sufficient battery charge to get back, he said, he'd suggest the customer take another cab or go with him to the changing station first - and many did, even though the side trip was on the customer's dime.
More to Come
Kobayashi says he gets a lot of businessmen aged 30 to 50, but also more businesswomen than he had expected, "A lot of my customers know about these cars already and want to try one."
Cities that would benefit from this model would be those that are tightly packed, where many taxi trips would be relatively short - Manhattan, London, Paris, Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore come to mind.
In addition to battery exchange stations, Better Place has a networked, plug-in EV charging station system and is launching both nationwide in Israel and Denmark. The company also continues working to build system development partnerships with regional governments and private businesses around the globe - including Australia, Canada, China and, in the U.S., the the State of Hawaii and a coalition of cities throughout California's San Francisco Bay area.
And, of course, there's the expectation of more to come in Japan, where the government is committed to slashing the national CO2 footprint and where Better Place appears to have made a big impression.