Why did Tesla Give up on Battery Swapping?

Jason Lomberg, North American Editor, PSD



­Battery swapping is a roundabout way to address “range anxiety” – a roundabout way that ignores technological progress. It focuses on the symptoms – rather than the cause – of an ailment that’s impeding the wider deployment of electric vehicles.

And oddly enough, one of the leading innovators in the EV space was one of the biggest cheerleaders for battery swapping nearly a decade ago.

Back in 2013, Tesla demonstrated a battery swap system on its Model S, changing out the battery in the same time it takes to fuel up an Audi sedan. It seemed like the next big innovation had arrived.

But then, the idea slowly faded away, as if nothing ever happened.

A year afterwards, Elon Musk said “We’re a little late on [battery swapping] because we got preoccupied with a few other issues. But we’re hopefully going to get that enabled in the next few months between LA and San Francisco.”

Then all progress slowed to a trickle.

While Tesla did apparently construct one facility in Harris Ranch, California, possibly aimed at securing subsidies from California, the company’s battery swap system – based on a modified version of defunct startup Better Place’s battery swap system – was clearly not a top priority.

And about a year ago, a Tesla spokesperson confirmed that “the company believes electric vehicle charging is the best way to power its vehicles, and that battery swapping is riddled with problems and not suitable for widescale use.”

Exhibit A: Better Place. The Israeli startup was the toast of Silicon Valley in the mid-2000s when it touted the idea of battery swapping. Behind the star power of founder Shai Agassi, the company raised $900 million, before completely imploding.

The $500K battery swap stations ended up costing $2 million apiece, and Better Place only secured one partner – Renault, whose 2011 Fluence Z.E. had a battery that allowed for an 80-mile range, but which could also drop through the floor and was compatible with the Better Place stations.

So when Tesla spoke of the problems with battery swapping, they’d essentially discovered how impractical the whole idea was.

I think IEEE put it best in a scathing critique of battery swapping when it said that “The design of each automaker’s batteries is deeply entwined with unique vehicle architectures… none are designed for one-size-fits-all or easy removal and reinstallation.”

Putting aside the impracticality of storing and servicing thousands of batteries (at each station, mind you), the very notion of battery swapping sidesteps the actual solutions for “range anxiety” – higher battery densities and quick charging.

The luxury Lucid Air EV allows owners to use DC quick charging to add 300 miles of range in 20 minutes, while Porsche’s Taycan Tesla Model S supposedly allows for 62 miles of range in just four minutes.

We recently covered a prototype cable from Purdue that could enable sub-5 minute recharging times. And with all the EV legislation in place, and most automakers moving inexorably towards electrifying their fleets, the battery innovations are flying out of labs and factories.

Despite several companies – Ample and NIO, amongst others – clinging to the idea, battery swapping is dead, and Tesla caught wind of that before it was too late.