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Tesla's Batteries Are Downright Superior

By Daniel Sparks - Sep 27, 2013 at 11:34AM

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Competing with Tesla is harder than it looks.

Tesla battery platform. Source: Tesla Motors.

Competing with Tesla (TSLA 4.67%) is harder than it looks.

The company is still selling every vehicle it can make and demand doesn't look like it will slow down any time soon. In fact, the company expects sales to double next year. But despite the electric-car marker's success, no auto company has responded with a long-range, fully electric vehicle. Sure, maybe fully electric just isn't their style. But even if it were, would they be able to replicate Tesla's success? Tesla's superior batteries and charging technology have left the competition in the dust.

Range leader
First of all, no competitor has launched a battery that can even come close to achieving the 265-mile range of Tesla's Model S.

Source: Tesla Motors Sept. 14 corporate presentation. 

Charge rate leader
Not only do Tesla's batteries achieve the highest range, but (thanks to Tesla's Superchargers) they're able to charge much faster than competitors, too. Superchargers aren't just a little faster than typical charging stations -- they are way faster. Exclusively available to Tesla vehicles, Superchargers represent the world's most advanced charging technology, charging the Model S 20 times faster than most public charging stations.

Pack cost leader
According to a 2011 study, battery pack costs are estimated to be around $650 per kWh. That would mean Tesla's 85 kWh battery would cost the company $55,250. If this were true, Tesla's aspirations for a $35,000 fully electric vehicle with a 200-mile range points to a break-even business model at best. Even more, the study predicts that by 2020 the cost could come down to $345 per kWh. At this price, even Tesla's 60 kWh battery would still be expensive, accounting for $20,700 of the company's planned $35,000 price tag

Fortunately, Tesla follows a far different cost curve. The company says it's already in the $200-$300 per kWh range -- and that number includes all cells, electronics, packaging, and labor costs.

Competitors won't be able to imitate the technology without a few hurdles. Tesla boasts 140 battery-related patents and has more than 240 pending.

Swappable batteries
Finally, and probably the most often overlooked feature of Tesla's strategy, is what I refer to as Tesla's swappable production strategy.

"When we designed the Model S, we created a platform," said Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the Model X unveiling. "So it's not just a single car; we created something on which we could build many cars, and we are able to leverage that and bring a car to market fast."

It makes perfect sense. With one standard platform, achieving scale becomes easier. The only things in production that will vary are the motors (just about one foot in diameter on the Model S) and bodies. The battery platform can be scaled across models.

Even more, the platform can be swapped out with ease -- in less than half the time it takes to fill a gas tank, in fact. Investors were able to witness this first-hand when Tesla showed off its automated battery pack swapping that the company is piloting at a few of its Supercharger stations in California this year. The service swaps out Model S owners' batteries for fully charged ones while the driver remains seated.

Demonstration of battery swap. Source: Tesla Motors website.

A meaningful first-mover advantage
General Motors CEO Dan Akerson appointed a special team earlier this summer to study Tesla's success. And now the company has finally developed battery technology that can go 200 miles on a single charge, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal. But there's a big problem: It costs too much.

Meanwhile, Musk has said that he sees a "a fairly clear path" to its affordable car, which Tesla plans to launch as early as 2016.

No proof has surfaced yet that suggests competitors could keep up with Tesla in fully electric vehicles even if they wanted to. Sure, this isn't an epiphany. But Tesla's lead-in battery technology does indicate that the company still has an open runway to accelerate to mass-volume and achieve meaningful scale.

This doesn't mean Tesla is worthy of its current valuation, but it is another sign that Tesla's mass-market success is very probable. On that note, a game-changer like this may be worth a nibble if the stock price ever pulls back.

Fool contributor Daniel Sparks has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends General Motors and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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