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Tesla hints at battery swap that's faster than filling gas tank

People look at the Tesla Motors Model X electric vehicle at its unveiling at the Tesla Design Studio in Hawthorne, Calif. in February 2012. The compan...
People look at the Tesla Motors Model X electric vehicle at its unveiling at the Tesla Design Studio in Hawthorne, Calif. in February 2012. The company's CEO has hinted that it may offer a battery-swap option.DAVID MCNEW / Reuters

Nearly a month after announcing plans to set up a high-speed network of “Supercharger” stations across the U.S. and Canada, Tesla CEO Elon Musk is hinting the start-up electric vehicle maker might also adopt a battery swap system that could allow owners of the new Model S sedan to switch in a freshly charged battery pack “faster than you could fill a gas tank.”

Tesla has been exploring the idea of swapping batteries for years. Conceptually, the approach is simple. When one battery pack runs down, simply switch it out for another, much like changing batteries in a flashlight.

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“Live pack swap demo on Thurs night. Seeing is believing,” Musk tweeted this week. The South African-born executive is fond of using Twitter to alert friends, fans and the media of the company’s plans.

Battery car sales have lagged behind expectations, which observers have attributed in part to high cost. There’s also the issue of limited range and the long charge times needed to “fill” batteries back up.

Even using 220-volt current, it can take hours to charge up most battery vehicles, but there is a push to expand the availability to higher-powered 440-volt DC, or Level III, charging systems. Last week, BMW and General Motors agreed on a new industry standard for those chargers – with other makers expected to sign on – that could lead to their rapid proliferation across the U.S.

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Separately, Tesla last month announced plans to more than double the number of its high-speed Supercharger stations, which it says provides an 80 percent recharge in 20 minutes. That is, however, significantly longer than filling up a gas tank.

That’s where a battery swap could come in. In most battery-electric vehicles, such a process could be difficult to impossible. The pack in the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, for example, is a complex, integral part of the vehicle structure. It would take hours to accomplish.

In a vehicle designed for that concept the operation could be as simple as changing batteries in a flashlight, however, and might take a matter of minutes.

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Tesla had hinted it might design in the capability of swapping batteries when it began working on the Model S, but there had been little discussion of the concept since then.

The electric sedan uses thousands of D-Cell-sized lithium-ion batteries hidden in the underlying platform of the vehicle. Apparently there’s a quick way to pull them out and slide in replacements.

Tesla isn’t the only maker that has explored battery swapping. Nissan worked with an Israeli company, Project Better Place, to develop a similar operation. Unfortunately, the Israeli firm failed to generate much enthusiasm and after selling fewer than 1,000 vehicles, it folded shop earlier this month.

It’s unclear if the Japanese automaker will continue to explore battery swapping. It decided not to use that approach when it launched the Nissan Leaf in the U.S. nearly three years ago.

Customers who buy the longest-range version of the Tesla Model S automatically can use the company’s Supercharger network. It is an option customers can buy with the shorter-range battery-sedan.

If Tesla does make battery-swapping available, it remains to be seen if drivers would have to pay more for the convenience of further cutting their wait times for fully-charged vehicles.

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