Tesla Just Made Every Other Electric Car Obsolete
It sounds like an audacious statement to say last night's demonstration by Tesla Motors of its battery exchange technology now makes every other carmaker's electric cars obsolete, but that could well be the ultimate cascade effect.
In less time than it took an employee to fill the tank of his Audi A8 at a nearby filling station, Tesla's robotic system completely swapped the batteries in two Model S sedans. While the Audi driver had to stand outside, monitoring the filling process and breathing the volatile fumes, the two Tesla drivers sat in the comfort of their luxury sedans. By the time the Audi driver had replaced the gas nozzle, screwed on the gas tank cap, closed the filler door, got back in the car and then drove off, the two Tesla cars would have been long gone.
Battery swapping in EVs has been around for well over a century. Early electric taxis in Philadelphia and New York used a manual system to remove and replace heavy lead acid packs with freshly charged ones. The electric forklift industry has operated in a similar fashion for decades; each forklift requiring three battery packs: one on the forklift, one being recharged, one cooling down from the heat-generating charge cycle.
Most recently, Better Place, constructed several dozen battery exchange stations in Israel and Denmark before succumbing to cash flow problems and shutting down, at least for the time being. (There is some interest in Israel by solar entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz in taking over the company's assets). Better Place's founder, Shai Agassi saw battery swapping as the key to the success of the electric car.
Apparently, so does Tesla CEO Elon Musk. In fact, the South African wunderkind, has stated online that Agassi saw Tesla's early battery exchange concept and used it as the model for Better Place.
Of course, the first question being asked is this: What happens to my battery, the one that I paid so dearly for when I bought the car? Better Place solved this problem by owning all its batteries. Their customers simply 'leased' the car as part of a subscription plan. Similarly, Renault in France will sell you their Zoe electric car, but lease you the battery. How Tesla plans to handle this hasn't yet been announced.
What we have learned is that eventually, each of its network of SuperCharger stations will offer both free fast charging and battery swapping, which Musk seemed to indicate would come at a cost, stating drivers will have their choice of "free or fast." One report indicates each robotic exchange station costs $500,000.
On the technical side, Musk pointed out during the demonstration in which it takes about 40 seconds to remove the old battery, and another 30-50 seconds to replace it with a freshly charged pack, that the robotic system torques the bolts holding the pack into the car to the same tolerances as those at the factory. Better Place's Renault-developed system appears from demonstration videos to use a mechanical latch system. Most recently Renault Nissan Alliance chief Carlos Ghosn announced the company would build no more cars with battery exchange capability. He may now have to rethink that stance.
The very effective demonstration raises an even more important issue. Presumably, all future Tesla products, including the Model X, the $30K consumer car, the next generation Roadster, and the speculated-electric pickup, will include quick battery exchange capability. While at this point, Tesla doesn't represent much of a threat of the big auto companies, the more of their cars that get out there, the more SuperCharger/Robotic Exchange stations that get installed, the fewer objections people will have to electric cars, especially the oft-lamented whine that 'it takes too long to charge them.'
It used to. Not anymore, folks. Musk just demolished that argument last night. Even a 20-minute SuperCharge now seems painfully slow in comparison.
So the question they must be asking in the boardrooms at Renault-Nissan, Toyota, GM, Ford, Audi, etc. is this: How do we respond? I don't think they can simply dismiss this as a cheap publicity stunt by Musk. This is very real technology that just effectively made all their cars - with the exception of Renault's Fluence EV that it built for Better Place - completely obsolete. And they can't even argue that EVs are okay for running around a city, but not for long trips. That argument also just got blown out of the water as well.
Their only response has to be, Let's go talk to Musk. Daimler and Toyota already have an ongoing relationship going back several years. Daimler has partnered with BYD on the Denza EV in China, so could we expect some movement there at some point?
Over the next few months could we also start to hear rumors about executive level talks going on in Palo Alto to license more of Tesla's technology? And if that happens, do we start to see a convergence towards a common standard for battery exchange systems, akin to the J1772, which itself may now be threatened by obsolescence?
Last night's demonstration did more than just showcase a technological curiosity. It very well could spell the end of the age of gasoline, and not a moment too soon.
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