If this works out in the real world, say goodbye to electric car "range anxiety." At an event in Southern California last week, Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk demonstrated a way his company's Model S electric cars can be "recharged" in less than half the time it takes to fill a 25-gallon gas tank.
We say "recharged" in scare quotes because the process doesn't involve pumping power into the car's battery so much as swapping out the drained battery for a fully charged one. Battery swapping isn't a new idea: it was hyped big time a couple years ago by the Israeli visionary Shai Agassi and his firm Better Place. The idea got a lot of attention before Agassi left his CEO spot: after financial struggles, the firm sadly, is now in a better place.
Still, the idea's compelling: rather than sit around waiting to charge your car's battery, why not have the battery sit around waiting for you to need it? Not only is that more practical for drivers, but it also potentially allows much of that battery charging to be done during non-commute, non-peak consumption hours.
The problem is infrastructure. It doesn't take much to run a power cord to a charging station. It takes a lot more effort, and investment, to set up places where car batteries can be removed, charged up, and installed by robot mechanics. That daunting threshold caused Nissan to back away from the technology not long ago.
Which makes it a job for Tesla, the electric car company founded by PayPal tycoon and SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Tesla is already working to set up a network of stations with Superchargers across North America. Those Superchargers, compatible with most of the company's Model S cars, will deliver a full charge in less than an hour.
If you're already planning to set up a network of proprietary charging stations, all it takes to add battery swapping technology at some of those stations is a pile of money. Which Tesla has; Musk announced Thursday that the company would be adding battery-swap facilities to a number of the company's stations in California and on the East Coast.
As he showed Thursday night, Musk also has the same laid-back showman chops as late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. As part of the announcement that the company will be adding battery swap facilities at its stations in California and the East Coast sometime this year, Musk presided over a race between a Model S battery swap and a standard car, offsite and on live video, filling a 25-gallon tank. Here's the video:
For those unwilling to watch, Musk swapped two batteries out in the time it took his off-site employee to fill his gas tank: about 93 seconds per car.
There are downsides, of course. Tesla expects to charge $60-$80 for a battery swap, which puts the cost per mile higher than some drivers might prefer. Of course, those drivers are driving a car that costs between $60K and $80K, and Musk reminded his audience that using the Superchargers will remain free.
Perhaps more of a problem, as CNET's Wayne Cunningham points out, is that this doesn't do much to promote uniform standards for electric cars:
Watching Tesla's video, it gave me chills -- the bad kind -- when Musk said Model S owners could pull into a "Tesla station." Will the landscape be populated with Nissan Leaf stations, Honda Fit EV stations, Ford Focus Electric stations? ... Tesla's "walled garden" approach is common in the technology industry. Apple, where Tesla seems to have derived some of its inspiration, is notorious for coming up with proprietary technologies. Likewise, mobile phone makers tend to embrace captive markets, good for their bottom lines, but limiting consumer choice.
Still, even if Tesla's battery swap initiative doesn't offer a panacea, it's pretty darn cool. If anyone wants to buy ReWire a Model S for that $80K price of entry, we'll happily drive around that walled garden for a while.