Yesterday, something unusual happened. In the wee hours of the morning, Elon Musk tweeted that Tesla would conduct a live battery-swap on the Model S this Thursday night (i.e. tomorrow) at 8pm Pacific Time.
Why is that unusual? Because a high-profile start-up called Better Place built an entire business around the notion of battery-swapping, and it proved to be a disastrous mistake.
So, given Better Place's epic failure, why would Tesla debut battery-swaps now? Have all those SpaceX flights made Elon Musk light-headed?
Perhaps not. In fact, there are at least four very good reasons for Tesla to roll out a swapping service:
1. Battery storage and charging technologies are still evolving. For Tesla to be competitive, it has to prove that driving an electric car isn't an inconvenience. Recharging the Model S, for example, has to be just as easy as gassing up your average sedan. The problem is, even super-fast superchargers require that drivers stop far longer than if they were simply pulling into a service station. Until battery storage improves and charging times tumble, battery-swapping offers a convenient alternative for folks on the go.
2. Battery-swapping capability is already built into the Model S. From the start, the Tesla Model S was designed to accommodate battery-swaps. It's true that swap stations won't be nearly as ubiquitous as charging stations due to the facilities and labor required. But then again, swapping won't require the Model S to be redesigned or retrofitted, either. In short, battery-swapping is a nice service supplement, building on a feature that's already found on the Model S.
3. Tesla has built its reputation on great cars, not great charging concepts. Better Place did the opposite: Shai Agassi and his colleagues tried to attract business with the promise of quick-swap batteries. The vehicles themselves were almost afterthoughts -- which might explain why just one automaker (Renault) created a car that could be serviced by the company. Agassi's heart was in the right place, but Musk's brain was in a better place. He knew, quite rightly, that consumers would be more attracted to tangible products than intriguing concepts. Now that he's got everyone's attention, he can roll out innovations like battery-swapping to make those products even more alluring.
4. Musk has the money to roll out battery-swapping infrastructure. Let's face it: battery-swapping could cure disease, end world hunger, and rid the world of pleated pants, but if no one funded it, it would never happen. With Musk's connections and his absurdly deep pockets (which are getting deeper by the day), money isn't the obstacle it was for Better Place.
What will Tesla's battery-swap program look like? How soon will swapping stations roll out? Where will they appear first? We hope to get answers to some of those questions tomorrow night. Stay tuned.