TOKYO--We're used to "buying minutes" on our cellphones. Suppose we did the same with our cars, and instead of owning the batteries in our electric cars, paid for the time we used them? And suppose instead of waiting six to eight hours to recharge our car's battery pack, we simply swapped it out for a fresh one? That's the concept behind the globally oriented but California-based Better Place EV charging company, which this week inaugurated the world's first EV battery swapping program (in partnership with the Japanese government), for Tokyo taxis.
Yes, taxis. The program consists of three converted Nissan Rogues, which since Monday have been plying the crowded city streets looking for fares, then returning to the downtown swapping station for a new battery pack. The 1,000-yen payments (about $10) are the first revenue collected by Better Place, which is installing countrywide charging networks in Australia, Denmark, Canada and Israel, home of visionary founder Shai Agassi and the location for the company's first full-scale demonstration later this year.
Agassi sees electric cars taking over rapidly from internal combustion, and peak oil is a big part of his thinking. "We did this to wake up the car industry in Japan," he said at a packed press conference. "The more electric cars will be made, the cheaper they will be. The more internal-combustion cars are made, the more expensive oil is. By 2022, there will be demand for more oil than anyone knows how to get out of the ground." And by that same year, he said, all of Tokyo's 60,000 taxis (which represent two percent of the city's fleet but contribute 20 percent of vehicular emissions) will be electric.
Agassi invited world leaders to come to Japan and see car-swapping for themselves. "They will go back to their countries and say they've seen the future," he said. "It started in Tokyo and it started today."
Here's Agassi in Tokyo talking about Better Place and the company's plans:
But for the moment, it's all about the taxis. The opening ceremony for the station in downtown Tokyo was somewhat formal, and mobbed with press. Police were there to keep the Rogues from mowing down representatives of the press. Through the Bosch translation headphones, I heard, "The car is running! Please be careful!"
After the crowd dissipated, I was finally able to get close to the cars and to the blue-and-white swapping station. It was indeed a technological marvel: The Rogues drove onto a ramp, and within 59 seconds the onboard battery pack had been dropped down into a well underneath and a new one snapped into place. Agassi compared it to a car wash, and it did resemble one.
Soon after, I finally got to take a ride in one of the Rogues, which were converted locally to electrics with an approximately 50-mile range. The lithium-ion packs come from American supplier A123, which also makes batteries for the forthcoming Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid.
Battery swapping is key to Better Place's model, because the company is convinced that five-minute, 480-volt fast charging won't work anytime soon. Obviously, if cars can be recharged in the time it takes to gas up at the local Shell station, complex swapping would be unnecessary, but Better Place's Michal Vakrat Wolkin, director of energy storage technologies, says that "fast charging is a nightmare for the utilities. The voltage required for that kind of charge is so enormous it would severely stress that end point of the grid."
Obviously, HSBC bank agrees with Better Place, because it just gave the company $350 million in equity financing. According to Mark Norbury, associate director of principal investments at HSBC, a widespread fast charging load could "bankrupt the grid."
Others are hedging their bets. Tesla, for instance, plans to enable the Model S sedan for battery swapping, but is also planning to offer a 45-minute quick charge option. That's less energy-intensive than a five-minute charge, of course, and far less taxing on the grid.
Better Place's challenge is to convince automakers to not only agree that fast charging isn't viable, but to convince them to equip their cars with switchable, low-mounted (and hopefully somewhat standardized) battery packs. That hasn't happened yet, with the exception of announcements from Tesla and Renault. Better Place has ordered 100,000 switchable packs for its ventures in Denmark and Israel, making it probably the largest pack customer.
Better Place believes--no, this is a company headed by a visionary, and it is convinced--that battery swapping is the answer. I asked if there was a backup plan for charging without swapping, and was quickly dissuaded: Better Place will lead the way forward, one swapped battery at a time.
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