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Not Even Tesla Can Make Battery Swapping Ubiquitous In The U.S.

What if instead of charging your electric car, you just popped a new, fully charged battery under the hood. It’s an idea that’s been tried–and failed–but Tesla is hinting they want to bring it back.

Not Even Tesla Can Make Battery Swapping Ubiquitous In The U.S.
Tesla via Shutterstock

Tesla may have made a big splash by paying back its loans from the government, but buried in Tesla’s latest filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission is this hint of things to come:

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Other factors that may influence the adoption of alternative fuel vehicles, and specifically electric vehicles, include…our capability to rapidly swap out the Model S battery pack and the development of specialized public facilities to perform such swapping, which do not currently exist but which we plan to introduce in the near future.

But it’s still unlikely that battery swapping will quickly take off in the U.S.

Read about our test drive of the Tesla Model S here.

If the concept of battery swapping sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the main driver behind Better Place, an Israeli startup that dreamed of creating a global network of electric vehicle swapping stations that could switch out batteries in two minutes, no three-hour battery charging breaks required. These days, Better Place appears to be on the verge of death. Charismatic founder Shai Agassi stepped down in 2012, the company has sold just 750 cars in Israel (which was its launch market), and it has bled over $500 million. And yet, Tesla is at least intrigued by the idea.

Better Place is stumbling due to a variety of factors: other automakers wouldn’t build battery-swapping compatible vehicles (Sue Cischke, Ford’s vice president for Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering, once told me that “For Ford, it doesn’t seem to be a solution that makes sense”), the model is hard to explain to customers, and in Israel, local officials haven’t been that supportive.

In its heyday, Better Place thought that China would be a big market because of its ambitious EV goals (5 million vehicles by 2020). Quartz believes that Tesla might be eyeing the same market for battery switching technology, both because of China’s goals and its ongoing debate over whether battery swapping should be a national standard.

But Tesla owners in the U.S. won’t be cruising up to battery swap stations anytime soon. Like Better Place, it’s unlikely that Tesla could convince other automakers to adopt a unified battery switching standard. And the U.S. is too big for this to work on any sort of country-wide scale without the kind of national standard proposed by China.

Electric vehicle charging stations aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as gas stations, and that’s with a number of different companies (including Tesla) installing them on streets and in parking lots. If Tesla is the only company installing battery swap stations in the U.S.–and they only work for Tesla batteries–they will inevitably be limited in scope (barring a future where we only drive Teslas).

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But that doesn’t mean we won’t see any working battery swaps because Tesla might have the ability make it work on a small scale, something that wouldn’t work for Better Place’s business plan. Tesla’s Model S Supercharger network provides a model for how it might play out in a more limited way: after launching the network of quick-charge stations last September, the company has installed nine of them in California, New York City, Boston, and Washington D.C. There will be over 100 by 2015.

Unlike Better Place, to make battery swapping a success, Tesla doesn’t need the system to become the de facto method of EV charging in this country; it could just be a supplement to the EV maker’s existing network of charging stations–making it easier to own a Tesla, and more compelling to buy one.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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