Without Better Place, Where is Electric Car Battery Swapping Now?

We examine Better Place, the ill-fated battery swapping company that operated from October 2007 to May 2013. Has this company going bankrupt solidified the electric car world to rapid charging or does battery swapping still have a chance? 

It all started in 2007 when Shai Agassi wanted to make the world a better place. Looking at the presentations and great elevator pitches of this well-dressed and charismatic man, it was no surprise he was able to pull off one of the largest and fastest seed rounds in history, securing enough funding for this project called Better Place. By January 2011 Better Place had raised over $700 million.

Better Place’s model was new in the world of electric cars. They wanted to sell subscriptions similar to the mobile phone industry but instead of minutes for your phone you bought driving distance for your car. The contract allowed for subsidies on the Renault Fluence so it could be sold for roughly $5000 less than a typical gasoline car.

The Renault Fluence was Built with Battery Swapping in Mind.

The Renault Fluence was Built with Battery Swapping in Mind.

The Better Place approach was to enable manufacturing and sales of different electric cars separately from their batteries in the same way that petrol cars are sold separately from their fuel. In the same way that one does not buy petrol upfront, Better Place would fuel the electric cars by a monthly payment that would cover electric “fuel” costs including the battery itself, daily charging and battery swaps.

This seemed like a great idea, but it failed.

Fast forward to 2013 when after burning through $850 million the company folded, letting go around 400 employees. The now 950 electric car drivers are driving as much as they can to make their investment worthwhile before the charging network and almost 40 battery swapping stations close down.

It was at these battery swapping stations that customers could swap out their battery in under 5 minutes if they needed a new one for longer driving.

But this all cuts to a deeper question: Do we really need battery swapping? Even Israel now has the beginnings of a rapid charger network.

Better Place tried to make Battery Swapping Work.

Better Place tried to make Battery Swapping Work.

One way to look at it is that cars are stationary 80% of the time. This time could be used to charge – the ABC approach (Always be charging).But this can be countered with the argument that if battery swapping can “imitate” the behaviour of a petrol car where a car is filled up when needed then adoption time to EVs could be considerably shorter due to them using a recognised model.

Better Place wasn’t the only company looking at battery swapping. Tesla Motors also demonstrated their own battery swapping station to complement their fast charging network and a Slovakian company has a low-tech but very effective system in place. While quicker than using the SuperChargers to fill up, the battery swap will cost money. This gives the drivers a choice of time over cost.

It all comes down to how many drivers are going to make use of the infrastructure after they find out most EV owners charge at home or at work. Did Better Place Place point to a model that could help more people make the switch to driving an electric car? I think battery swapping could have been one of the current options for consumers if the network of swapping stations were able to be used by other cars. But this was unlikely and even Renault, who produced the car used by Better Place (The Fluence) halted european production of the car.

Some car manufacturers are offering their electric cars with battery rental to cut down initial purchase price of the car and provide peace of mind on everything relating to the battery. But of course there will always be drivers that want to own the whole car, battery included.

However there are at least three good outcomes from the whole Better Place adventure:

  1. Better Place really did raise awareness of the issue of electric cars.
  2. Many of Better Place’s battery packs were offered at the liquidation sale for less than the manufacturer paid for them.These can now be bought by tinkerers, innovators and interested parties across the globe.
  3. There is now a good second-hand market for the Fluence. Transport Evolved even wrote a guide on if a second hand Fluence is the car for you.

What do you think? Where does battery swapping fit into the world of electric cars? Should it be left to fade away or should we be pushing for it?

Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.


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