A California-based company has unveiled a new battery-swapping technology that could overcome a key obstacle to the adoption of electric cars — their reliance on frequent, long stops for recharging.
Founded two years ago, Better Place on Wednesday showed a working model of its battery switching station in this port city near Tokyo, seeking to garner enthusiasm for its one-of-a-kind technology among Japan's auto heavyweights, government officials and consumers.
The company is aiming to establish a ubiquitous network of charging posts, supplemented with a series of battery exchange stations where drivers traveling long distances can quickly swap a drained battery for a fully charged one, said CEO and founder Shai Agassi.
The exchange stations address one major complaint about electric cars that have stalled them at the experimental stage so far: the frequent, extended stops necessary to charge them.
"Most zero-emission cars have been experimental in nature, small in volume and expensive to say the least," Agassi said. "And definitely not convenient. We were lacking those two elements — convenience and affordability."
Swap in under a minute
Better Place's stations would have drivers back on the road with a new battery in as little as 40 seconds. They are designed to have a driver pull over an square underground platform that would reach up, remove the old battery from the belly of the vehicle and replace it with a new one.
Its "quick switch" model is being touted as among the most promising innovations for the development of emissions-free cars, which continue to face a number of barriers to mass market appeal.
Automakers still need to configure the cars' large lithium ion batteries for mass production and ensure they are long-lasting and safe. The vehicles themselves are still too expensive for the average consumer without hefty government incentives. And the troubled auto industry has yet to figure out which next-generation technologies will ultimately prevail in the market.
The Nissan Motor Co.-Renault SA auto alliance has teamed up with Better Place to build an electric vehicle network in Israel and Denmark.
Japan's No. 3 automaker is working to introduce plug-in electric vehicles in the U.S. in 2010 and mass market them globally two years later. It has no plans at this point to build quick-switch models outside of its announced projects with Better Place.
Nissan spokesman Alan Buddendeck described Better Place's battery exchange idea, which would rely on automakers producing cars with removable batteries, as "one important model." But it doesn't have to be the only one, Buddendeck said, noting the potential of home-based stations and high-speed charge networks.
Rivals have announced their own plans. Toyota Motor Corp. will make several hundred plug-in Prius hybrids, which run on a combination of electricity and gasoline, later this year as a test fleet, and General Motors Corp. plans to release an extended range electric plug-in called the Chevrolet Volt in limited numbers in late 2010.
Regardless of format, Agassi is certain that the infrastructure must first be in place before car sales can take off.
"There's always the question of what comes first, the car or the infrastructure?" he said. "And in this case, I believe the infrastructure has to be there first before you can sell the cars."
Cheaper than gas stations
Agassi says the stations will accommodate different battery and car models, and will cost about $500,000 to build — cheaper than a standard gas station, which can run $1 million to $2 million. For drivers, the cost of driving a 1 mile (kilometer) would be roughly equivalent to that of driving a gas-powered vehicle, he said, without giving specific figures.
Along with Nissan, the Palo Alto-Calif.-based firm is also partnering with several U.S. areas to establish car recharging sites over the next few years. Japan's Ministry of Environment invited the company to feature its switching station as part of a government feasibility study.
Renato Orsato, a senior research fellow at INSEAD in France, traveled to Japan just to get a sneak peek at Better Place's battery exchange technology. He mentions the company in his book "Sustainability Strategies" and says Wednesday's demonstration convinced him of the idea's potential.
"If it's not the electrification of mobility, what is the alternative?" Orsato said. "The existing business model of the car industry ... is based on the abundance of oil. It's based on a system that is showing its limits."