Better Place Battery Swapping Moving On Up to Tokyo

Better Place
, the ambitious electric vehicle infrastructure start-up, has won funding from the Japanese government to outfit electric powered taxis with “swappable” battery technology. Better Place will partner with Nihon Kotsu, Tokyo’s largest taxi company, and Tokyo R&D Co., an automotive engineering company, to retrofit pre-existing electric vehicles with swappable batteries and build a site to swap out the cars’ batteries.

The deal is the first commercial application of Better Place’s battery swapping technology after the success of a demonstration project in Yokohama. The taxi project is slated to begin in January 2010.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles…

The project will only involve up to four electric taxis, but Better Place hopes to use its experience in Tokyo to fine-tune its battery swapping technology in real-world conditions, making it easier to scale up the technology for wider use.

While taxis only account for 2% of all vehicles on the road in Japan, they emit 20% of CO2 from vehicles, due to the way they are driven (all day, and usually in the city). Tokyo has 60,000 taxis, more than New York, London or Hong Kong. The project will center around a switching site in the Roppongi Hills neighborhood of Tokyo. The taxis will make use of pre-existing lanes for environmentally friendly vehicles.

Japan is an ideal environment for Better Place’s project, due to a technophilic population, and the rapid adoption of alternative energy vehicles — the Prius is the number one selling car in the country.

A Controversial Strategy

Battery swapping aims to overcome one of the central hurdles to widespread adaptation of electric cars: battery life. Instead of recharging a car battery, which can take hours, Better Place envisions drivers simply swapping the battery for a fresh one in a process that would take only minutes. Thus an EV with a 100 mile range could make the ~500 mile drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a time comparable to gasoline-powered cars.

Critics from the automotive industry and elsewhere say battery swapping would put unrealistic restraints on the design of electric cars, and require expensive infrastructure to support. San Francisco Business Weekly has an interview with a Ford executive that outlines some of the other doubts. It should be pointed out, of course, that automotive executives are not known for their prescience.

Better Place counters that consumers simply won’t switch to EVs en masse without the option to quick charge their cars on longer trips.

Battery swapping is just part of Better Place’s plan to build an electric vehicle support infrastructure, including building thousands of charging stations so drivers could charge their cars while parked.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

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