In the summer of 2013, Tesla Motors (TSLA 1.70%) showed off a 90-second battery swap system. The technology will enable owners to quickly exchange their battery for a fully charged one instead of waiting for their electric vehicle to power up at a Supercharger location. A year and a half later, Tesla has finally debuted its first battery swap station.
Tesla's first battery swap station
Next week, Tesla will begin a pilot battery swapping program at a facility across the street from a Supercharger station at Harris Ranch, California. During the pilot program, Tesla will initially host only invited Model S owners.
"This pilot program is intended to test technology and assess demand," according to Tesla's blog post yesterday announcing the program.
Notably, the 90-second timing that was initially showcased won't be possible yet. Since first showing off its battery swapping, Tesla has added a titanium underbody shield and aluminum deflector plates to the bottom of the battery for increased protection. This added complexity has boosted the swap time to three minutes, according to the automaker. However, Tesla believes the amount of time could be reduced to less than one minute. But this upgrade will only happen if the "relative demand from customers for paid pack swap versus free charging ... merits the engineering resources and investment necessary," Tesla said
Unlike its Supercharging, battery swapping won't be free for Model S owners. It "will cost slightly less than a full tank of gasoline for a premium sedan," according to Tesla.
The company has said previously that owners would eventually have to return to the battery swap station to retrieve their original battery.
Why battery swapping?
Tesla CEO Elon Musk seemed to suggest during the system's unveiling in Los Angeles last year that battery swapping had more to do with proof of concept than customer demand for such a technology.
"What this is about is -- it's convincing the people that are skeptics," Musk said on stage after the batteries were swapped out of two Model S vehicles in the time it took to fill the gas tank of one gasoline-powered vehicle. "There are some people that just -- they take a lot of convincing. So what we really want to show here is that you can actually be more convenient than a gasoline car."
Given that the average person's daily driving distance is far less than the 208 to 265 miles of range boasted by Tesla Model S batteries, most owners only need to stop at a Supercharger location when they are traveling long-distance. For daily driving, owners usually opt to charge overnight at their home. It might be possible, therefore, that many owners will prefer the free Supercharging over the faster battery swapping that actually requires drivers to open up their wallets.
On the other hand, battery swapping could eventually be crucial for improving the customer experience at busy Supercharger locations, such as those in California, where owners sometimes must wait in lines during high-demand hours.
With about 22,500 Model S sales last year, probably around 33,000 this year, and Tesla's estimate for about 50,000 in 2015, battery swap stations could become key for the company in proving that electric cars can be more convenient than their gas-powered counterparts.