Tesla To Launch EV Battery Swap Network

Just the Facts:
  • Tesla will build a network of battery exchange stations.
  • Owners of Tesla EVs will pay the price equivalent of 15 gallons of gasoline for the service.
  • Exchanging batteries will takes less than two minutes — faster than filling a tank of gas.

HAWTHORNE, California — Electric car pioneer Tesla Motors confirmed Thursday that it soon will begin offering owners of its all-electric Model S sedan and upcoming Model X crossover a battery swap service that will enable them to exchange depleted battery packs for freshly charged ones in a matter of minutes.

Tesla Chairman Elon Musk demonstrated his company's robotic battery swap station at a preview event, packed with several hundred enthusiastic Model S owners, at the company's Los Angeles-area design center.

He said the initial stations would be installed, at a cost of more than $500,000 each exclusive of real estate and an initial inventory of 40 to 50 battery packs. Real costs could be nearly $1 million per station.

They are to be established alongside the company's "supercharger" quick-charging stations along the Interstate 5 Freeway corridor between San Francisco and Los Angeles on the West Coast and along the Boston-to Washington, D.C., corridor in the East.

The first battery exchange station will be built on the West Coast and will be open in the fourth quarter this year, he said.

The announcement wasn't a big surprise — Musk had tweeted about it earlier in the week and Edmunds reported in 2009 that the Model S was being designed with a swappable battery to take advantage of the technology if it came into the market.

At the same time, one of Musk's fellow Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Shai Agassi, was attempting to get a battery exchange business, Better Place, off the ground. The company was able to get only one mainstream automaker — Renault — to design an EV with swappable batteries, however.

Musk said Thursday that Agassi "got the idea for Better Place" while visiting Tesla and listening to the company's engineers discussing their plans to build a car with an easily swappable battery pack.

The high cost of installing swapping stations and dim prospects for the Better Place business model requiring standardization by automakers in the U.S. and Europe, ultimately ended Agassi's efforts. His board of directors fired him late last year and Better Place, now transplanted to Israel, filed for bankruptcy liquidation in May.

Tesla's plan would seem to have much better chance of success as it works only with the Model S and its crossover variant and doesn't need other automakers to cooperate by designing their battery-dependent electric vehicles to use the Tesla system.

Tesla's engineers, Musk said, designed the Tesla battery swap system in-house, and the network will be funded and run by the company — at least initially. Musk said he would be open to selling stations to independent operators once the in initial network is established.

If the Palo Alto, California-based automaker is successful in installing a national network of quick chargers and battery exchange stations, it would greatly expand its customers ability to rely exclusively on their EVs for their transportation needs.

Lengthy trips for Tesla Model S owners no longer would be endurance feats requiring weeks of route planning and marked by hours of delay at battery charging stations.

Battery swap stations in major cities also would make EV ownership easier for city dwellers with no access to private garages for home charging of their cars' batteries, Musk said.

The goal of making electric cars easy to use is based on Musk's belief that, to succeed in the market, EVs must offer "the same freedom" and convenience as the gasoline vehicle. Tesla's plan to offer owners of its cars free rapid charging or pay-per-use battery swapping at a series of Tesla 'service stations' "hopefully — is what convinces people finally that the electric car is the future," Musk told his wildly applauding audience.

As demonstrated Thursday evening, the Tesla system works by robotically unfastening and lowering the car's flat, rectangular, 1,000-pound battery pack after the vehicle parks atop a service pit. A new, fully charged battery pack is then raised and fastened into place by the automated system. The Tesla's battery coolant system uses quick-disconnect hoses that can be fastened and unfastened by the same automated machinery without spilling any of the coolant fluid.

Users would pay the local equivalent of the cost of 15 gallons of gas ($60 when gas is $4 a gallon) for a replacement battery pack — and would pay the same again when they picked up their original pack on the way home. As an alternative, a Model S owner could opt to keep the replacement pack and if it was a new one would be charged the difference between its value and the value of the old, depleted pack.

Payments would be made automatically via a pre-authorized credit card and occupants of a car could remain in the vehicle the entire time the swap was taking place.

Musk said that while the system will work on the Model S and X cars, it wouldn't work with the third-generation Teslas coming in a few years.

Those cars will be smaller, less expensive and have battery packs of a different size and shape than the Model S and X, he said. "By then there may be better [quicker] charging technology" that will render battery swapping unnecessary, Musk said.

Edmunds says: With its own proprietary charging system, fast-charger network and now this battery exchange system, Tesla increasingly is separating itself from the pack while showing how EVs should be done, at least for those who can afford the company's cars.

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