Car

Switcheroo: Is Tesla Giving Battery Swapping Another Try?

Because time is precious, fully electric cars are unlikely to become the primary vehicles for most households until they can be recharged in the time it takes to fuel up a conventional vehicle at a service station. While fast-charging stations are one approach to get there—and that technology is advancing rapidly—there is one other way to do it: battery swapping. A patent filing posted in September suggests that Tesla, despite the rapid expansion of its Supercharger fast-charging network, is still considering that option, too.

Before Tesla tested battery swapping, a startup called Better Place attempted to build a subscription-based battery-swapping business model that some likened to buying air time for a cellphone. Using a proprietary system, the company could swap out a nearly dead battery for a fresh one in just a couple of minutes. Better Place was well backed, but it failed when it couldn’t afford the massive upfront infrastructure costs of its own scheme.

Tesla designed its Model S to be compatible with a similar battery-swap system—boasting a fresh, fully charged battery in as little as 90 seconds—and in 2014 established a limited pilot program using a test station at Harris Ranch, California, the site of a busy Supercharger station and effectively at the midpoint between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. That test ceased in 2015 amid controversy over the additional California ZEV-credit revenue the company was earning for the program—although Tesla then cited a lack of demand for the service.

Tesla battery swap patent
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These latest documents, filed in May, include a mobile rig with a proposed electrical energy storage system (EESS) that could be built on top of a custom-built trailer. It would first properly align the vehicle, then employ a lift, which would potentially employ systems of rollers and arms to allow an entire battery unit to be accessed and replaced with a different one. The process would still rely on one or two attendants.

A Tesla spokesperson declined comment on the new battery-swap filing, so at this point it’s all conjecture as to whether the company has a new plan, and, if it does, why it’s once again exploring the tech. The detailed description of the system notes that in some cases battery-swapping stations could be located along a remote highway between two cities, so the system could make sense in places where local utilities or municipalities are apprehensive about the power demands of a fast-charging station. Or swapping could perhaps serve as a backup during natural disasters with long-term power outages, allowing customers to get a much-needed charge in a pinch.

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