Back in June 2013, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk presided over a special event at Tesla’s Hawthorne Design Studio in California, where the Silicon Valley automaker demonstrated its fully-autonomous, electric car battery swap system for the first time.
Since then, Tesla has remained unusually quiet on the issue of battery swap technology, but on Friday, our friends over at GreenCarReports received confirmation from Tesla on the rumors that we’d all been hearing about Tesla’s battery swap launch date: the first Tesla battery swap site will go live some time this week.
As expected, the site of the first Tesla battery swap station is located roughly mid-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco on a plot of land directly opposite Tesla’s extremely-busy Harris Ranch Supercharger site.
Yet while it has taken an agonising eighteen months from the point of demonstration to the point of opening for business, Tesla Motors’ [NASDAQ:TSLA] first battery swap station appears to be something of a work-in-progress rather than a finished product.
It’s even a fact reiterated by Tesla CEO Elon Musk., who tweeted on Friday that the battery swap station was “now operating in limited beta mode.”
Pack swap now operating in limited beta mode for SF to LA route. Can swap battery faster than visiting a gas station. Tesla blog out soon.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 19, 2014
What exactly does ‘limited beta’ mean?
As Tesla detailed in an official blog post on the subject at the end of last week, the Harris Ranch battery swap station will initially only operate with ‘invited Model S owners’ on an ‘appointment only’ system.
That, says Tesla, is partly because it intends its pilot battery swap program as a way of testing its battery swap technology and assessing future demand. What’s more, the battery swap process will cost around the same as a full tank of gasoline for a premium sedan, giving customers the choice between having a free charge and a short break or paying a premium to continue their journey a few minutes after pulling in.
“The free long distance travel option is already well covered by our growing Supercharge network, which is now at 312 stations with more than 1,7498 Superchargers worldwide,” the blog post reads. “They allow Model S drivers to charge at 400 miles per hour.”
The hidden subtext here is pretty clear: Tesla expects the majority of its customers to avail themselves of the free electricity offered by its Supercharger sites while having a much-needed restroom break or food stop after several hours on the road.
In fact, Tesla doesn’t appear convinced that battery swap technology is the holy grail of long-distance electric car travel.
“Tesla will evaluate relative demand from customer for paid pack swap versus free charging to assess whether it merits the engineering resources and investment necessary for that upgrade,” the blog post states.
It’s an unusually staid and conservative stance from an automaker which has made a name for being the one automaker that dares to be different. And in a year where Tesla has wowed audiences with faster-than-ever dual-motor Tesla Model S upgrades, self-driving cars and the Gigafactory, the unveiling of an invitation-only, pre-booked battery swap station test program worries us.
That’s because we’ve seen it before in Israel, where electric mobility company Better Place promised to revolutionise the world of battery swap stations with what it hoped would be a new and innovative way to use an electric car.
While the idea was sound in theory, the sheer financial investment required to build a network of battery swap stations across Israel and stock them with battery packs proved too much for the company. It declared bankruptcy last year, taking with it the dream of battery swap technology.
That’s not to say the process of battery swapping isn’t amazing for those who are used to plugging in for hours to recharge. Having experienced it ourselves first hand, we’ll admit the process was impressive and almost addictive. But while Better Place had good intentions, the sheer technological challenges behind battery swapping resulted in high running costs and low profitability.
No matter how good an idea is, it needs to be cost-effective in order to survive.
Like Better Place’s failed experiment, Tesla’s battery swap station has no doubt already cost Tesla a significant amount of money to build and develop. And in a year where Tesla has already invested heavily in its Gigafactory and upgrades to its Fremont facility, enquiring minds are no doubt wondering how much Tesla is willing to spend on battery swapping technology before declaring it a success or a failure.
There’s one final hurdle that Tesla’s battery swap technology faces when it comes to customer expectations too: battery swap time.
While Tesla famously demonstrated two battery swaps in the time it took a large gasoline car to fill its empty tank, it did so on a specially-prepared stage. The cars used for the demonstration were standard Tesla Model S sedans.
Since that time however, Tesla has modified the underside of its Model S sedan in the interests of safety, adding an extra ballistic shield to the undercarriage. Removing that triple-layer shield, Tesla says, has increased battery swap time to ‘approximately three minutes,’ although it says it is confident that this could be reduced to ‘less than one minute, even with shields’ in the future.
Essentially then, Tesla’s battery swap station is nowhere near the dream we were promised back in June 2013, where Tesla Model S owners can simply drop in to a charging station, switch out their car’s battery pack and continue on their journey.
Instead, Tesla has opted to test its technology in the field in a limited-run beta program. And as anyone who has beta tested software and hardware can tell you, that can sometimes be a hinderance as well as a help.
Which leaves us asking one question: why is Tesla taking such an unprecedented move in opening up a battery swap beta program, and why is it doing so just before one of the busiest travel times of the year?
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