May 22, 2013

Tesla Announces Battery Swaps (kind of)

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In case you missed it, Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors (the electric car company) recently tweeted that "There is a way for the Tesla Model S to be recharged throughout the country faster than you could fill a gas tank." There's only one way I know of to recharge an electric car faster than filling a gas tank and that is swapping a discharged battery for a fully charged battery. That is, instead of plugging the empty battery into a charger and waiting hours for it to recharge. you simply replace the empty battery with a full battery.
Then, in Tesla's most recent quarterly filing with the SEC they mention:
"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." (emphasis mine)
Although Tesla has not made an announcement to the press, this is a pretty forward-looking statement to put in your SEC filing. "Near future" could mean anything, but Tesla has put a stake in the ground that they will be developing battery pack swap stations.
Now, anyone who has been following the electric car industry for some time might ask: What about Better Place? Haven't they been doing battery swaps for some time? What's the big deal? (As a refresher, here's a link to Better Place's swappable battery packs for electric vehicles patent.)
The big deal is, Tesla is now the largest manufacturer of electric vehicles in the world, and has shipped more electric cars than any of the large car manufacturers. The biggest obstacle Better Place has faced is the old chicken-and-egg problem: Few car manufacturers were willing to produce cars that used Better Place battery packs until there were numerous Better Place swap stations, and nobody wanted to build swap stations until there were cars that used the battery packs. Although many manufacturers (and governments and fleet operators and so forth) have expressed interest in Better Place-like technology, adoption and deployment has been very disappointing.
Tesla completely sidesteps that issue because they are a car manufacturer. There is a clear benefit to them to deploy battery swap stations: They effectively give their cars infinite range, making them much more desirable. By being first movers, they can also dictate standards for swappable battery packs. (If you're going to build a new electric car after this, it had better be compatible with Tesla's swappable packs.) The sooner Tesla deploys these battery swap stations, the sooner they will establish a leadership position. Posted by todd at May 22, 2013 11:02 AM