Tesla Motors will build at least one battery swapping station by December 2014

According to several sources today, Tesla Motors is going ahead with their robotic battery exchange technology and will deploy one battery swap station somewhere between San Francisco and Los Angeles.  The service will launch by December 2014, and no I don’t know anything more than that.

The news came first through SlashGear, and that site says Tesla confirmed the plan to them.  The post gave no more details than that, and Tesla Motors hasn’t independently released any information.

Tesla’s battery swapping technology was shown in 2013, and can swap battery packs using robotic arms within about 90 seconds.  (Watch the video below)  The system is significantly different from the one developed by Project Better Place – coincidentally that company was formerly headquartered across the street from the Tesla Motors headquarters in Palo Alto.

That Tesla was developing fast battery swapping technology was known as early as June 2010, when I was reviewing SEC filings Tesla Motors filed related to their IPO.  At that time the company said the Tesla Model S would include both rapid charging and fast battery swapping capability.

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Both are methods to implement what we know as the Road Trip.  In the theory that drivers deserve to replicate every behavior of gasoline cars in electric cars, many people dismiss electric cars because they cannot do road trips.  How often do most of us take road trips?  The average driving pattern is less than 40 miles a day, right?

In any case the “rapid charging” system became known as the Supercharger, and has enabled Model S owners to routinely take long distance trips with ease.  At a Supercharger port, a Model S can gain about 300 miles of range per hour of charging.  On a long trip one would drive 3-4 hours, stop for an hour at a Supercharger station, stretch their legs, visit a nearby eatery, then get back in the car refreshed from the pause for another 3-4 hours of driving.

That’s the healthy way to road trip – defrazzling your mind every so often, and by walking around the lymphatic fluid gets pumped around, etc.

But that’s not good enough for the hard core road tripper – the one who stops only long enough to pee out the soda they drank since the last stop, and who eats quickie food in the car to avoid stopping for any length of time.  The goal is to put as many miles behind you as possible, letting ones health take a back seat.

For such a road tripper, 90 seconds for a robotic battery pack exchange is a direct 1-for-1 replacement for gassing up at a gasoline station.

The plan to go ahead and deploy battery swapping stations immediately raises a large number of questions – cost, etc.  But there’s one big question to discuss.

Who owns the battery pack?  How will you be certain “your” battery pack is returned to “your” car?

When Better Place developed their battery pack swapping model – headquarters directly across the street from Tesla Motors – the concept was that battery packs would be leased to car owners, and that Better Place would own the packs.  You, as the car owner, would pay Better Place a monthly fee rather than paying for the pack outright.

This would decrease electric car prices, while insulating electric car owners from battery pack problems.  Lower priced electric cars would make consumers more likely to buy these cars, increasing the speed of greening the transportation system.  Back in 2012, Nissan Leaf owners were complaining about battery capacity degradation.  Wouldn’t that scenario have played out differently had the packs been leased to Leaf owners and easily exchanged?  However as Renault owners show us, there’s plenty of room for misunderstanding and mistrust with leased battery packs.

But that’s not the model Tesla Motors is following.  A Model S owner owns the whole car including the battery pack.

Let’s again ask – what happens to your battery pack when the robotic gizmo takes it away and gives you a fresh pack.  Yes, it’s cool you nearly-instantly get a fresh battery pack.  But, that’s your battery pack which was just taken away.  Right?  What happens to it?

What if you’re not taking a round trip – San Fran to LA and then back (a round trip where you can easily retrieve your original pack while returning home) – but instead taking a multi-legged trip, and you will not pass by that swap station again?  Presumably Tesla will deploy other swap stations, maybe even a country-wide network of these stations.  What if you’re a one-way coast-coast trip because you’re moving from LA to NYC?  How do you get back to the original battery swap station to retrieve your battery pack?

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In the video below, Elon Musk tried to tell us the only question we should ask is “Do you want ‘faster’ or ‘free’?”  I hope I’ve made it clear there are other questions than what Mr. Musk wants us to ask.

We won’t know Tesla’s plans until the company itself makes a proper announcement.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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