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Published on November 17th, 2009 | by Nick Chambers

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Nissan Global EV Chief: Battery Swapping Likely Won’t Work in U.S.

Editor’s Note: This is part one of an exclusive sit down I had with Hideaki Watanabe, Nissan’s Division Manager of their Global Zero Emission Business Unit, at last week’s U.S. debut of the LEAF in Los Angeles. Part two is devoted battery leasing, part three to the quietness and safety of EVs, and part four to the different zero emissions directions of Renault and Nissan within their alliance.

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The Renault-Nissan Alliance’s strategy regarding battery swapping has been somewhat unclear to the public as of late. On the one hand, Renault has partnered with battery swapping stars Better Place in such countries as Israel, Denmark and France to develop a purpose built car for those battery swapping markets. On the other hand, Nissan has ignored many other potential battery swapping markets, such as the U.S., and has remained quite non-committal in those areas.

In a rather open conversation with me, Hideaki Watanabe, Nissan’s Division Manager of the Global Zero Emission Business Unit, explained why.

“For the battery swapping, we don’t know what’s going to happen to EVs in the future,” he said. “We will not be able to control everything. But what we have to do is to be able to respond to various solutions that may come up. One option is the battery swap. Within the alliance it’s important to have someone working on that. But reversely, it doesn’t make sense for the two companies to do that. We’ve allocated that resource to the Renault side. If there’s a market or a business model which is favorable for the battery swap system, we can get the technology through our alliance.”

After I pressed him a bit on why the Renault-Nissan Alliance has largely ignored other batter swapping markets, Mr. Watanabe said, “In Israel the battery swapping system works and my team in Renault is working on the Israel deal. Does it seem reasonable now in Japan? Not yet, at least. But if there’s a market in the future that requires battery swapping, can we comply with it? Yes we can.”

When asked particularly about the prospects for large scale battery swapping in the United States and whether he envisioned a future market for battery swapping here, Mr. Watanabe responded, “In the US, not very much because the land itself is so huge. But it may be applicable for limited city applications—for taxis, for example.”

That answer was the first time I’ve heard anyone at a high level within a major manufacturer who is planning on marketing and selling electric cars say that they don’t think the battery swapping model will work on a large scale in the U.S.—and I have to say I agree whole-heartedly.

It’s the same reason why building a nationwide high speed rail system is hard to do. Our country is just so huge that, economically, it doesn’t make any sense. Given the current range of EVs (and even the ranges into the foreseeable future) there would have to be an extraordinary amount of battery swap stations all over the US in the middle of places where no one currently lives for it to be successful. Logistically, I just don’t see this happening.

Other Posts in This Series:

Disclaimer: The author’s travel and lodging expenses were paid for by Nissan to attend the Los Angeles unveiling of the LEAF.

Image Credit: Nick Chambers


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  • Carbon Buildup

    Yo Nick,

    Actually, this decision by Nissan is a good one because it opens the door for other businesses. Assuming (ha ha!) that ‘in the near future’ EV’s will have some kind of standardized electrical connections, other businesses could offer battery swapping anyplace where they think they could make money. Locations 200 miles or so from major cities then could become hubs for swap shops. Instead of hoping the gas station in North Podunk was still in business, you would hope for somebody to have a battery shop there. That would make long-distance driving in the western U.S. just as adventurous as it is now!

  • Carbon Buildup

    Yo Nick,

    Actually, this decision by Nissan is a good one because it opens the door for other businesses. Assuming (ha ha!) that ‘in the near future’ EV’s will have some kind of standardized electrical connections, other businesses could offer battery swapping anyplace where they think they could make money. Locations 200 miles or so from major cities then could become hubs for swap shops. Instead of hoping the gas station in North Podunk was still in business, you would hope for somebody to have a battery shop there. That would make long-distance driving in the western U.S. just as adventurous as it is now!

  • Nick Chambers

    Carbon,

    You may be right. I think I’ve been to North Podunk a few times myself… perhaps even with you once or twice :)

  • John

    I think battery swapping is idiotic. Heck, Apple has even moved away from battery swapping in phones and laptops because of the design advantages of an integrated battery.

    The only way that a pure EV will succeed in the marketplace is if battery energy densities get a lot higher while at the same time batteries get a lot cheaper. Maybe that’s possible, but I have yet to see how we get there. In the meantime, I think the Volt approach (although I think even they have too big of a battery) makes a lot more sense.

  • John

    I think battery swapping is idiotic. Heck, Apple has even moved away from battery swapping in phones and laptops because of the design advantages of an integrated battery.

    The only way that a pure EV will succeed in the marketplace is if battery energy densities get a lot higher while at the same time batteries get a lot cheaper. Maybe that’s possible, but I have yet to see how we get there. In the meantime, I think the Volt approach (although I think even they have too big of a battery) makes a lot more sense.

  • http://www.CleanEnergySolutionZ.com J.D. Kennedy

    I agree, Nick. Everything is profit driven. Because this country is so spread out, there must be a mass adoption of “swappable” electric cars in order for the battery swapping model to work. It is going to be many years before mass adoption of electric cars, and most likely only 50% of them will be swappable, at most. Someone has to foot the bill for the swapping infrastructure and supply of batteries, and they are going to want a return on their investment. No doubt, companies will try it in the US, and while it may provide a boost to the electric car market, I think it will eventually fizzle out. Ultimately, though, the consumer will end up paying for it. As a consumer and a former lease customer, I would rather make payments on my own battery pack and apply the money I save toward the extra risk I take. In that way, I am more likely to take care of my batteries and try to make them last longer.

  • http://www.CleanEnergySolutionZ.com J.D. Kennedy

    I agree, Nick. Everything is profit driven. Because this country is so spread out, there must be a mass adoption of “swappable” electric cars in order for the battery swapping model to work. It is going to be many years before mass adoption of electric cars, and most likely only 50% of them will be swappable, at most. Someone has to foot the bill for the swapping infrastructure and supply of batteries, and they are going to want a return on their investment. No doubt, companies will try it in the US, and while it may provide a boost to the electric car market, I think it will eventually fizzle out. Ultimately, though, the consumer will end up paying for it. As a consumer and a former lease customer, I would rather make payments on my own battery pack and apply the money I save toward the extra risk I take. In that way, I am more likely to take care of my batteries and try to make them last longer.

  • http://www.pluginrecharge.com Mark Thomason

    Just like battery swapping works great for industrial warehouse vehicles like forklifts, I think battery swapping makes sense for fleets in situations where vehicles are on the move all day and don’t have 30+ minutes to kill waiting for a fast charge…like taxis and business delivery vans.

    I still assume that fast charging reduces battery life…which adds to the cost of a fast-charging strategy for when you need to turn-around vehicles quickly.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see a niche vehicle company like Azure make a hot-swappable delivery van so companies can get the most out of their investment.

    In addition, a fleet implementation would only have to maintain 1-2 batteries in inventory which makes logistics simple. You couldn’t do this with a public system since I assume that manufactures would NOT standardize on a battery type so soon in their development since battery technology is a competitive advantage.

  • http://www.pluginrecharge.com Mark Thomason

    Just like battery swapping works great for industrial warehouse vehicles like forklifts, I think battery swapping makes sense for fleets in situations where vehicles are on the move all day and don’t have 30+ minutes to kill waiting for a fast charge…like taxis and business delivery vans.

    I still assume that fast charging reduces battery life…which adds to the cost of a fast-charging strategy for when you need to turn-around vehicles quickly.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see a niche vehicle company like Azure make a hot-swappable delivery van so companies can get the most out of their investment.

    In addition, a fleet implementation would only have to maintain 1-2 batteries in inventory which makes logistics simple. You couldn’t do this with a public system since I assume that manufactures would NOT standardize on a battery type so soon in their development since battery technology is a competitive advantage.

  • evnow

    While I agree with you on battery swapping – I don’t agree with you on high speed trains.

    Infact for all the hype about electric cars – peak oil will hit us much sooner than we will ever be able to replace gas cars. We will have to rely on trains. Afterall Warren Buffett is not known to be foolish in his investments.

  • evnow

    While I agree with you on battery swapping – I don’t agree with you on high speed trains.

    Infact for all the hype about electric cars – peak oil will hit us much sooner than we will ever be able to replace gas cars. We will have to rely on trains. Afterall Warren Buffett is not known to be foolish in his investments.

  • Nick Chambers

    evnow,

    Warren Buffet did not invest in high speed trains. He invested in freight trains. In particular, he invested in the freight trains that haul the highest quality coal in the US. It was an investment calculated with the knowledge that there will be increased demand for electricity. In the US, coal is the main source of electricity and likely will be for quite some time to come.

    Even if your statement about peak oil and having to rely on trains comes true, it does not make my statement any less accurate. Building high speed rail in this country will take incredible outside pressures that make it economically feasible. Your example, although unlikely, is one such scenario that would make building high speed rails across vast swaths of this country feasible.

  • 상율 한

    I realize just as Internet protocol, standardization in EVs is an ideal way to convenience their charge.

  • 상율 한

    I realize just as Internet protocol, standardization in EVs is an ideal way to convenience their charge.

  • http://off-the-grid.eu Krzysztof Lis

    If swapping horses did work, why wouldn’t work swapping batteries, if everyone could agree on one standardized interface between batteries and the EV?

    But it would be neccessary to add some monitoring of the health of the battery. There should be some rules like that batteries with capacity below 2/3 of the new battery would have to be scrapped, and replaced with new set — and who would pay for those batteries?

  • http://off-the-grid.eu Krzysztof Lis

    If swapping horses did work, why wouldn’t work swapping batteries, if everyone could agree on one standardized interface between batteries and the EV?

    But it would be neccessary to add some monitoring of the health of the battery. There should be some rules like that batteries with capacity below 2/3 of the new battery would have to be scrapped, and replaced with new set — and who would pay for those batteries?

  • Peter

    Electric trains (including supercapacitor trains)and renewable electricity are needed to address greenhouse gases, climate change and air pollution. On the other hand fuel stations can be enhanced offering battering swapping. It is the only way to survive. Regards.

  • Peter

    Electric trains (including supercapacitor trains)and renewable electricity are needed to address greenhouse gases, climate change and air pollution. On the other hand fuel stations can be enhanced offering battering swapping. It is the only way to survive. Regards.

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