Elon Musk: Tesla battery swap now working in beta in California

Will Tesla soon start offering its customers the option to quickly swap out discharged batteries with charged batteries on long road trips? On Friday Tesla CEO Elon Musk said via Twitter that battery swapping was “now operating in limited beta mode” between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

According to an official blog post from Tesla, the company will start piloting the battery swap tech next week at a custom-built facility located across the street from the Tesla Superchargers in Harris Ranch, California.

Musk has long talked about how Tesla wants to offer battery swapping options at its Super Charger stations. Battery swapping can take just a few minutes — shorter than the time it takes to pump a car with gasoline, says Musk — while fast charging can take at least a half hour or more. Tesla baked a swapping option into the design of the Model S from the beginning, just in case this turned out to be an important energy option.

[vimeo 68832891 w=500 h=281]

In the Summer of 2013 Tesla demoed how the battery swapping tech would work: a Tesla car drives over a swap station, and a robotic arm (the same tech that is used on the factory floor in Fremont) swiftly reaches up and turns the bolts on the bottom of the car. Then the discharged pack is automatically removed and replaced with a fully charged pack.

The big question in my mind is not around technology, but price and value to the customer. Since Tesla customers own their own batteries, how would they get them back or get a battery with the same type of use?

A Better Place battery swap station.

A Better Place battery swap station.

According to a report in Forbes that was published around the time that Tesla demoed the swapping tech, a swap could cost around the “price of about 15 gallons of gas at the going local rate.” If a customer plans a return trip they could do another swap on the way back for the same price and get the fully charged battery back again. If a Tesla customer is driving one-way (and not back through the swap station later), Tesla could bill them for the difference in value, or transport the old pack back to the customer at a charge. Each battery swap station will cost $500,000 to build.

Battery swapping isn’t a new idea and a lot of people think this could be an important option for electric cars one day. Better Place is the most famous company to try to tackle battery swapping, but unfortunately the company wasn’t able to execute on that vision and filed for bankruptcy after failing to sign up enough customers to buy its cars and use its infrastructure.

Updated at 11:32 AM on Friday December 19th, with more info on the battery swap pilot from a Tesla blog post.