Tesla introduces robot mechanics to swap out electric car batteries

Come one, come all, see electricity take on gasoline.
Come one, come all, see electricity take on gasoline.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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Tesla’s electric Model S sedans were stacking up on Thursday outside the company’s Los Angeles design studio, to the consternation of passing traffic. Once inside, valets lined them up for a complimentary super-charging, but the four chargers weren’t nearly enough, since a full charge takes twenty to thirty minutes. Inside, there was a faster way

The company revealed an automated system for replacing depleted 1000 lb. batteries in about ninety seconds, staging a race against a standard car filling up a gas tank. Two Model S sedans had their packs switched in less than the four minutes it took for the gas-powered car to refuel.

“We need to address the objection to buying electric cars,” founder and CEO Elon Musk said, announcing plans to install the machines at Tesla supercharger stations around the country, beginning with five on California’s I-5 freeway.

The new service will allow Tesla’s customers to obtain fresh batteries, which have a range of more than 200 miles, much more quickly than they can recharge them. Musk plans to set the price of the battery pack exchange to the approximate local cost of a 15 gallon tank of gasoline; charging the vehicle will be free.

Tesla’s battery pack on the bottom of the car was designed to be swappable, but only recently did the company design the $500,000 pack switching apparatus. It mimics the company’s automated factory robots, unfastening the bolts around the battery pack, detaching the liquid coolant and power lines, and reversing the process with a new battery.

The swap technology raises comparisons to the now-failed electric car network BetterPlace, but Musk says that battery swaps are hardly novel, and may even be rendered irrelevant if charging technology improves.

“BetterPlace wanted to change the whole model of driving, and that was too much,” Tesla CTO JB Straubel said, insisting that Tesla remains focused on its core product.

Still, the fact that the company felt the need to dramatically expand its network of charging stations and equip them with robotic pack switchers may suggest something of a diversion. Building, installing and maintaining the switchers, along with a stockpile of batteries, will be an added cost for a company that just saw its first profitable quarter.

“We’ll be less profitable, or something like that, but we’re going to do it,” Musk said.

He also denied that the battery pack plan was intended to increase access to tax credits. Musk noted that in the very near future, only one third of the company’s sales will be in the United States, with the rest coming from Europe and Asia, making it necessary to build a vehicle—and a company—that doesn’t require tax credits to run.