Tesla’s entire business model is built on succeeding where others have failed, so it was perhaps inevitable that it would make a go of the controversial process of battery swapping. Proponents say swapping eliminates one of the major objections to EVs: long charge times. Skeptics say it’s a complicated and cumbersome way to address an issue that will surely disappear in a few years anyway, as better batteries and/or wireless charging make it moot. And of course, the doubters can now point to Better Place, a once-promising startup that bet the farm on battery swapping, and lost it all.
However, as many stock traders and a certain major newspaper have learned, it’s perilous to place a wager against the Prophet of Palo Alto. Unlike Better Place, Tesla already has a blockbuster vehicle on the market, and access to plenty of capital. And of course, Tesla isn’t making battery swapping a centerpiece of its strategy – just a service that impatient drivers can purchase as an alternative to using the free Supercharger.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk addressed the comparison head-on in an interview with Reuters this week, saying, “[Better Place founder Shai Agassi] was very good at marketing but not so good at technology, so he didn’t quite get it right on the pack swap thing. As long as you have the right mechanical device you can do a battery pack swap.”
After drip-feeding us a stream of tantalizing hints in the usual Tesla fashion, Musk demonstrated the technology Thursday evening in a theatrical presentation. The battery swap was performed live on stage, as a video screen showed a driver filling up an ICE vehicle at a gas station.
From what little we could see, Tesla’s technology looked elegant. The gadgetry is all located under the floor (how do we know there aren’t Oompa-Loompas down there doing the work?), with a pair of wheel guides like those at a car wash the only visible parts. In the space between car and floor, we could just see the big flat battery pack descend and ascend, as the onlookers oohed and ahed.
The whole process took about 90 seconds. In fact, Tesla’s automated elves swapped out two Model S batteries in much less time than it took the dinosaur driver on the screen to fill up his Audi, even though Musk claims that they sought out “the fastest gas station in Los Angeles” for the demonstration.
Musk told Reuters that Tesla plans to install battery swap capability at every Supercharger station, which he expects to cost the company around $100 million.