According to this FastCompany article, Ford Motors is not too keen on the notion of designing its future electric vehicles to be compatible with battery-swap infrastructure, such as that developed by Better Place. Sue Cischke, Ford's vice president for Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering, was quoted as saying, "For Ford, it doesn't seem to be a solution that makes sense." The main bone of contention with battery swap is that, in order to work, it requires automakers to settle on battery standards that are compatible with the swapping machinery.
BetterPlace, whose robotic battery switch stations "can swap out depleted EV batteries for fresh ones in two minutes," maintains that this is will not be the case. Company spokesperson Julie Mullins claims that "From day one, accommodation of multiple battery types has been a core engineering requirement for our battery switch stations. We have made significant R&D investments to develop a toolkit/adapter in our battery switch stations that can anticipate and supply different battery types for different vehicles with different battery-to-vehicle connection mechanisms."
After the break, I'll explain that, even if BetterPlace were correct about the battery type disagreement, there are still several other reasons why swap stations will likely achieve only limited market penetration, and may ultimately be a very short chapter in the unfolding EV saga.
I'm in full support of any company that is giving its all to make electric cars a reality. But their business model has to make sense, and, unfortunately, for me, this one does not, except in a few limited scenarios. There are simply too many too many factors working against it.
(It should be mentioned that battery swap is only half of Better Place's business model: the other half is deploying GE-branded charging stations. I believe that this piece of the business has a much higher probability of success. It is already a foregone conclusion that EV charging stations will be deployed en masse, it is simply a matter of which companies are in their seats when the music stops.)
(I don't know about you, but I don't drive over 100 miles in one direction very often, and, if I do, I will be staying there for a few hours, if not overnight. There's also an almost 100% chance that I would want to take a rest stop along the way, since I will have been in the car for almost 2 hours, anyhow. Since a rest stop equals a food and bio break, thirty minutes doesn't seem like much of a change in habit, and five minutes would mean no change at all).
Theoretically, this should mean that most American drivers would rarely need to go to a charging station, outside of home or work. In fact, this has been borne out by anecdotal evidence from a small number of individuals who who have been driving EVs for an extended period of time.
It gets worse, when you consider the fact that battery shapes, sizes, and chemistries will constantly be changing. If you believe Ms. Cischke, Better Place could be turning over its entire battery inventory every two years! Given the coming shortages in precious metals, particularly lithium and cobalt, this is not a strategy that is going to be good for the planet, nor is it going to be more cost effective for Better Place.
However, none of this necessarily means that battery swapping, and Better Place, are doomed from the start. There is one area where battery swapping makes perfect sense: large vehicle fleets. In large fleets, there are a few standard vehicles, fixed schedules, and a desire to minimize downtimes. A battery swap setup , like Better Place's, may always provide the fastest way to recharge a vehicle. Even if the difference is only a handful of minutes, large fleets, such as those owned by UPS or a taxi company, are big enough so that the rewards will outweigh the costs. According to FastCompany, the same may also apply to smaller countries. Therefore it is no surprise that Israel and Denmark are the only places which have committed to install battery swap stations.
To sum up, the future doesn't look that bright for battery swap business models. Each advance in battery or charging technology is one less reason for the automakers to support battery swap. If the manufacturers don't support it, it's simply not going to happen (although one, very small, company is willing to give it a try).
Just think about it: your new EV comes with a 8-year battery warranty, from the manufacturer. Are you going to risk voiding that warranty, for a gain of only a few minutes?
I didn't think so.
What do you think? I am completely insane? Will battery swap will be the best thing since sliced bagels, or is it dead on arrival? Leave a comment and let me know!
Steve Puma is Director of Business Development for SABA Motors, and a sustainability writer/consultant. His work focuses (mostly) on clean transportation, including Plug-In Electric Vehicles, something he is very passionate about.
Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can learn more about Steve by reading his blog, or following his tweets.
<em><a href="mailto:email@example.com">Steve Puma</a> is a sustainable business consultant and writer.
Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from <a href="http://www.presidioedu.org/">Presidio Graduate School</a> and a BA in Computer Science from <a href="http://www.cs.rutgers.edu/">Rutgers University</a>. You can learn more about Steve by reading his <a href="http://www.brightpuma.com">blog</a>, or following his<a href="http://twitter.com/stevepuma"> tweets</a>.</em>