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Battery swapping died in the US. Chinese companies are trying to bring it back to life.

Akshat Rathi
Michael Tabb
Member exclusive by Akshat Rathi & Michael Tabb for Electric Cars

Electric cars may be the future but they have a major limitation: it takes too long to charge their batteries. For example, even Tesla’s “fast-charging” option takes 30 to 40 minutes to bring the battery to an 80% charge. That’s eons compared to the few minutes it takes to refill a gas tank. What if, instead of waiting for a battery to juice up, why not just swap it out for a fully charged one?

In the last decade, at least two companies have tried to bring this idea to fruition. Better Place was an Israeli startup that raised nearly $1 billion to build out battery-swapping stations but a mixture of mismanagement and being too early—electric vehicles hadn’t yet penetrated the market widely enough—led it into bankruptcy in 2013.

The other company was Tesla, which in 2013 launched a pilot program where Model S owners could swap out their battery at a station in California. However, in 2016, it gave up on the idea. Most likely that was because it didn’t have enough car owners using the service. Batteries are expensive, accounting for up to 40% the total cost of an electric car. That means the inventory of a battery-swapping station can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, making the enterprise really expensive unless there are enough cars using the service to reach scales of economy.

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