I was reading an interesting patent for a possible Tesla battery-swapping system, when I had a moment of realization. “Battery swapping has to happen, but easier, cheaper, and better,” I shrieked, flipping over my table at the Arby’s. I seized a passing child by the shirt, lifted him to my face, and whispered “battery standardization needs to happen.” His tears told me I was right.

Advertisement

The more I think about this, the more I think these two things need to happen:

1. Battery standardization across all electric carmakers, ideally globally.

Advertisement

Now, let me clarify something here: when I talk about standardization, I’m referring to four main things: exterior physical dimensions, electronic connector standardization, battery electrical output (volts/amps), and safety standards for the external housing construction.

Internally, the batteries can generate electricity in any way the company wants, even if that way isn’t technically a battery. As long as the size fits the standard and what comes out of the terminals meets the voltage and amperage requirements, the guts inside can be lithium batteries, fuel cells, a micro nuclear reactor, sterling engine, or, perversely, even a internal-combustion generator of some sort.

from Tesla’s battery swap patent, No US2016/0107619 A1

The point is that it really doesn’t matter what makes the electricity, as long as the power unit can plug into any electric car that uses the standard.

Sponsored

Batteries for electric cars should be like batteries for almost everything else we use with replaceable batteries. There can be different categories, like we have AA, C, D and so on for small disposable batteries, but, you know, much bigger. And rechargeable.

The reason standardized batteries are so important is because of the next thing that needs to happen:

2. Batteries for electric cars need to be swappable. And not with expensive, elaborate equipment– for battery swapping to work it needs to be cheap, easy and ubiquitous.

Advertisement

Advertisement

The Tesla patent for battery swapping is comprehensive and well thought-out, but it requires some very specialized lifts and other equipment to perform the 32-step process required to remove and replace the batteries:

I’m sure there’s very good and very rational reasons why this has to be the case, but there needs to be an engineering push to dramatically simplify this process. I know it won’t be easy.

If this is going to catch on, it has to be much cheaper and easier. The goal should be that a battery swap system should be able to be implemented in pretty much any normal gas station without major infrastructure changes or equipment expenditures.

Advertisement

I want to see battery swapping that happens with something like a common pallet jack.

This is likely a tall order, but I think it’s essential because, if we look long-term, widespread battery swapping is essential if electric cars are to really compete with gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Charging an electric car is slow. Even the fastest chargers, Tesla’s Superchargers, take a solid 30 minutes to get the car to 80% charge. That’s technically impressive, but from a real-world perspective, it’s way too long.

Advertisement

Advertisement

You can gas up and be gone, with a greater range, in about 5 minutes. And, sure, charging makes sense for parked-at-work commuting and overnight charging, supplemented with the occasional opportunistic charging when available, but if electric cars want to do everything gas cars do – and that includes long highway trips – the charging network is not nearly developed enough, and, even if it was, it’s still too slow.

Battery swapping solves the speed problem, as well as another problem that’s not discussed as often: batteries have limited lifespans.

Right now, when you buy a Tesla Model S or a Chevy Bolt or a BMW i3 or any electric car, you’re buying the battery, too. And that battery will degrade over time, and eventually, that capacity will degrade to the point where the car’s range is severely limited.

Advertisement

All of this will likely happen long before the rest of the car wears out.

Electric motors are hardy things, and generally have very long lifespans. Replacing a battery in a car like a Tesla is not cheap. Tesla usually gives the price to replace the batteries at $12,000. Would someone with a 10-year old Model S think that makes sense, even if the rest of the car is in good shape?

The point is, the battery is the limiting factor in all electric cars. Making the whole car’s usefulness dependent on the most expensive, vulnerable component makes no sense. That’s why electric cars need batteries that are easy to remove and replace.

Detail of mechanism from Tesla Battery Swap system patent

Right now, every maker of combustion engined cars enjoys the fact that fuel is universal to all types of cars, and is available pretty much everywhere. Electric cars need to level the playing field if they want to compete, so their ‘fuel’ needs to be universally compatible and completely ubiquitous as well.

Advertisement

Advertisement

If we can engineer a standard for electric cars that keeps standard-size power modules somewhere in the car’s chassis/floor, along with a system that allows these batteries to be easily unlocked, placed on a rolling floor or pallet jack-type of tool, and then easily replaced with the same sort of portable tool, then we’ve got the makings of a system that most gas stations could adopt.

There will need to be companies started whose business model is supplying and reconditioning batteries for gas stations. A given station would have some inventory of charged, ready-to-go batteries, and would take depleted batteries from cars and send them to be recharged and reconditioned.

The cost for a battery swap should be about what a full tank of gas would cost. And, remember, the electric car owner always has the option of recharging the battery at home or at charging stations as well, so their battery-swap money can go further, if they have the time and means.

Advertisement

Swappable batteries also give electric car owners a chance to upgrade to newer battery technologies as well, keeping their cars viable and useful for a longer time.

An industry-wide system of removable, standardized batteries and an easy-to-implement infrastructure to swap and service these batteries is essential if electric cars are to become the dominant type of car on the road.

There’s engineering challenges, sure, like managing weight issues while keeping the housings safe (though the power units will be checked and maintained likely much better than a private owner would), engineering robust connectors and locking/unlocking systems, and so forth. But these are solvable engineering issues.

I’m aware the battery-swapping idea has been tried and rejected many times before. And I’m here demanding that it be done even easier and cheaper and safer. I understand the scale of what I’m asking, and how unreasonable I’m being. And how badly many engineers much smarter than me would wish I’d shut my Skittles-hole.

Advertisement

Advertisement

But is this scale of work greater than building a nationwide network of charging stations that can compete with the gas station infrastructure? Even if that happened, there’s still the issues of charge time, battery degradation and repair, and more.

When batteries are standardized and when swapping is easy enough to do at a gas station, electric cars will enjoy the fuel freedom that right now only ICE cars have.

Electric car owners won’t live in financial fear of the inevitable day when their batteries stop holding a charge, and they won’t have to make awkward conversation for 45 minutes with some jackass in the dingy waiting area of a remote Supercharger station.

Advertisement

These two things will make everything work much better. Who’s with me?