Electric vehicle infrastructure startup Better Place has been hard at work over the past few years promoting its unique business model. The thrust of the plan consists of Better Place and GE-branded EV charging stations that allow drivers to charge on the go as well as gas station-like battery switch stations that can swap out depleted EV batteries for fresh ones in two minutes.
But there's a catch: the plan won't work unless automakers agree to make electric vehicles that are compatible with Better Place's robotic switch stations, or until the company makes its switch stations compatible with more varieties of battery packs. And judging by recent remarks from Sue Cischke, Ford's vice president for Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering, that may be unlikely.
It just doesn't make sense for Ford to commit to a common battery pack format, Cischke said this week at Ford's Dearborn, Michigan plant, because it could hinder the company's ability to rapidly progress to new EV battery technology. "The size of [EV] battery packs keeps changing. It will be different in two years," she says.
Better Place denies that this will be an issue for automakers. "From day one, accommodation of multiple battery types has been a core engineering requirement for our battery switch stations. We have made significant R&D investments to develop a toolkit/adapter in our battery switch stations that can anticipate and supply different battery types for different vehicles with different battery-to-vehicle connection mechanisms," explains Better Place spokesperson Julie Mullins in an email.
So far, there is only one vehicle that works with the switch stations. The Better Place compatible Renault Fluence Z.E. will go into limited release in Denmark and Israel next year, with 100,000 units set to be deployed. As of right now, that's all the commitment to switch stations that Better Place can muster. And as vehicle charge times for EV charging units continue to decrease, any incentive to move to a common battery pack for swap stations may drop as well.
There are markets where swap stations make a lot of sense—in smaller countries that have large numbers of corporate fleets, and in the taxi industry, for example. "Battery switch is really the only option for taxis, because it requires very little down time, versus standard or quick charge which require the taxis to be out of service for much longer periods of time," Mullins explained to FastCompany last year.
But for major automakers that simply want to keep ahead of their growing electric vehicle competition, it may not be ideal. "For Ford," Cischke says, "it doesn't seem to be a solution that makes sense."