EV Battery Swap Stations May Be At A Dead End


tesla-battery-swappingTechnology for battery electric vehicles is changing rapidly, but range anxiety still prevents many people from joining the electric car revolution. One proposed solution was battery swap stations, spearheaded by Israel’s Project Better Place. Folks would drive in to a battery swap station, machines would remove the old, discharged battery, slap in a new one and off they’d go! The idea sounds super smart and super cool, but something happened on the way from theory to reality.

With Project Better Place calling it quits last year, that left Tesla to carry the battery swap torch, and they seemed ready to do just that, debuting a battery-swapping station last summer. Elon Musk said the first stations would be installed by the end of 2013, but since then though, Tesla has been quiet on battery-swapping technology,. That’s likely because California dropped its ZEV credit requirements that clean vehicles be refueled in 15 minutes or less, which caused Tesla to lose interest in battery swapping.

Why? Here are a few reasons:

  • To be practical, battery swapping requires all cars have the same type of battery located in the same location. That just ain’t happening any time soon.
  • Some companies, like Tesla, use liquid cooling for their batteries. Disconnecting and re-connnecting cooling lines using automated machines is a daunting challenge.
  • Battery swapping stations would cost up to $1,000,000 each to construct. There are presently 127,000 gas stations in North America. So how much would it cost to build enough swapping stations to meet the needs of the motoring public? You can do the math, but the answer is – a lot!
  • Battery recharging technology is improving at a furious pace. Just a few years ago, recharging your EV could take 5 hours or more. Back then, swapping batteries in under two minutes was an exciting  prospect. But today, when Tesla’s DC Superchargers can get your Model S back up to 80% charge in 30 minutes. Suddenly swapping batteries seems a lot less appealing.

Tesla still sees a place for battery swapping in fleet operations, where a large number of identical vehicles depart from and return to the same location every day. But it seems like they’ll continue to focus on their Supercharger technology, with battery-swapping taking a back seat.  Tesla’s goal is to get recharge times down to under 5 minutes, and if they can make that happen and bring it to market first, they just may rule the post-gasoline engine world.


About the Author

I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I'm interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.
  • UncleB

    Sane and sensible evolution of a very massive and complicated technology! We are witnessing history as relevant as the Henry Ford story!

    • Ben Helton

      More like witnessing history as relevant as the Ken Lay story.

      The promised battery stations don’t exist, and won’t exist. If they can’t be truthful about something as blatantly simple as that, where is their integrity on issues that aren’t as easily transparent?

  • Joe

    I’ve explained it this way to people. There are probably millions of places to get your tires swapped. After better than 100 years it is still not easy, convenient or quick.

    • egogg

      There are some processes that are easy to automate, and some that aren’t. Tires, and apparently EV batteries, fall into the latter category. I don’t understand why swap stations can’t be manned, just like Jiffy Lube’s or BIg O’s are. As an automation engineer I know I should be advocating “robots for every service” but I know the limits of robots.

  • Offgridmanpolktn

    One issue with a battery swap program for Tesla or anyone else that you forgot is just to have sufficient extra batteries in stock.
    Even if you only had to deal with five or ten percent of the current model S’s then for Tesla right now that is already having to back order current sales because of insufficient batteries it would mean that many more unhappy customers having to wait several months that have made the decision to buy one.
    Musk has already brought up how the main concern this year has to be getting the gigafactory started because without a sufficient supply of batteries production of the model S, model X, and the economy version (that can’t be model E unless Ford compromises) will all be constrained. So long as this one part of the supply chain is limited their ability for higher sales continues to be limited because the market for a long range EV is there especially one that comes in at a lower price thanks to the economies of mass production.

  • Battery swapping isn’t easy, no matter how you look at it. The cost to build it, the cost to maintain those battery charged, and then, the most important piece is the battery health assurance. What assurance will I have driving in a busy station on a Friday evening that the battery I have will be fresh and relatively new? Better Place couldn’t answer that question ether.

    Tesla is building a station in California, but that’s under the radar scope so far. It’s not open, not finished, and they haven’t begun testing anything yet, as far as I know.

    • Dveer Levenberg

      Not clear about your comment about the battery and the Friday night case – In Better place customer service center you could view any battery state in any station around the world with a click of a mouse –
      In case you had concerns you could call the call center and get the information.

  • Battery technology is evolving so rapidly that swap stations really only serve as a temporary bridge and as marketing to help allay range anxiety. At 1million a pop, the investment is too high when they will clearly no longer be needed a decade from now when newer batteries will likely be charging in under 5 minutes.

  • Steve Hanley

    Good comments all. Thanks for that input.

    The truth is…we don’t know what the truth is. Battery technology and charger technology are progressing so rapidly, it’s hard to tell what the electric cars of the future will be like. IF they can be made to go 200 miles or more on a charge and recharge in around 5 minutes, cars with internal combustion engines will likely become mere curiosities for museums and eccentric collectors.

    But if not??????

    Being a bit of a curmudgeon who lived through an era when a computer was obsolete as soon as you got it home from the store, I personally am unlikely to invest in an electric car until some of the infrastructure issues are resolved.

    I still think Elon Musk is as much PT Barnum as he is Ransom E. Olds; as much Preston Tucker as Henry Ford. While he is certainly out front, leading the parade, will he be there at the end? History is littered with famous people who promoted revolutionary changes and then got swept away in the wake of the storm they helped create.

  • Objective

    Batteries themselves will not become the mainstay of the future. It will be wayside power for most electric miles traveled, and batteries only to plug the gaps where that direct power is not available. The true leader in the field is as yet unknown to the general public.

  • Ben Helton

    So, if they continue to leave it on their website…. supposedly offer the ability when selling a Model S…. but then never roll with creating the stations….

    That’s essentially sales fraud….. of an item over $50,000.

    Tesla better get wise and clean this mess up before it turns into a class action suit.