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Gone in 90 Seconds: Tesla's Battery-Swapping Magic

Gone in 90 Seconds: Tesla's Battery-Swapping Magic

Courtesy Tesla

Earlier this year, Tesla Motors (TSLA) Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk unveiled a nationwide network of super-fast charging stations to refuel the company’s all-electric sedans on long-distance trips. The really nice thing about these charging stations is that they’re free. Free! The downside is that they take about 30 minutes to put 200 miles’ worth of charge back into the car. That might not seem like a horribly long time, but it’s long enough for critics of electric cars to argue that they’re not well-suited for long journeys, and so not that practical.

Well, Tesla took a major stride toward getting rid of that downside last night.

Musk presided over an event at Tesla’s Los Angeles design studio that he billed as a “title fight” between the Model S and gas-powered cars. In front of an audience of hundreds of Model S owners, Musk unveiled a new type of automated battery-swap system in which machines grab the flat battery pack from the bottom of the Model S and replace it with a brand-new, fully charged one. During a live demonstration, Tesla managed to perform a battery swap on a Model S in 1 minute and 33 seconds, and then a second Model S in 1 minute and 36 seconds. All the while, a Tesla employee was being filmed at a gas station as he refueled a 20-gallon tank in an Audi, taking more than 4 minutes to fill up the car. Musk insisted that Tesla had scoured the city for the fastest gas station to make the test fair.

“There are people that take a lot of convincing,” Musk said. “Hopefully, this is what will finally convince people that electric cars are the future.”

Tesla plans to install the battery-swap machinery at its network of charging stations. Each one costs about $500,000 and requires the company to dig a pit in the ground, which gets filled with the battery-swapping systems. Arms grab the battery pack, remove the liquid cooling systems, then place a new battery pack and screw it in with machines that measure every turn. Tesla customers will be charged $60 to $80 per battery-pack replacement and get automatically billed as their vehicle hits the station. “You don’t even have to step out of the car,” said Musk. Those who want to wait 30 minutes can still recharge for free at the charging stations and, of course, plug in at home or at stores.

The demonstration seemed to leave the Tesla-happy crowd spellbound. The company’s design studio, which is usually stacked full of car parts and the skeletal vehicles, had been turned into a nightclub with white leather couches scattered on a floor of synthetic turf. Women in black dresses and high heels served cocktails, while the Model S owners held up their smartphones to record the proceedings as if they were at a concert. Throughout the evening, Tesla projected decades-old commercials on a giant screen in which cheerful attendants at Esso and Chevron stations pumped gas into people’s cars and sent them merrily on their way. Tesla, it would seem, prefers robots.

In his typical style, Musk interspersed the announcement with jokes and jabs at those pesky traditionalists still driving gas-powered cars. “Gas is a weird thing to love,” he said. “Honestly.” And after refueling a Model S in 90 seconds, Musk bragged, “We are working to improve that, of course.”

The first battery-swap stations will appear in California between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and on the East Coast between New York, Boston, and Washington. Tesla expects the early stations to appear by the fourth quarter.

Over the past few months, Tesla has been on an incredible run. The company posted its first profitable quarter, increased its sales forecasts, unveiled a new leasing program, and expanded the charging network. Shares of Tesla—among the most shorted of any company—have soared and remained unaffected by drips of bad news such as a voluntary recall it just announced for about 800 Model S sedans.

Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. He is the author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (HarperCollins, May 2015). Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.

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