Tesla to swap batteries in about 90 seconds

(MoneyWatch) In the latest attempt to calm drivers who worry about how far they can drive their electric cars, Tesla Motors (TSLA) plans to build station that will swap run-down batteries for fresh ones. The company says it will take 90 seconds, or less time than it takes to fill the tank with gasoline.

The first swapping locations will be built along routes between Los Angeles and San Francisco and, in the East, from Boston to Washington. Each facility will be paired with a free, fast-charging station that can recharge a Tesla car in about 30 minutes. But those in a hurry can instead buy a fresh battery pack for $50 to $60 -- about the price of 15 gallons of gas.

One downward pressure on sales of all-electric cars is the potential buyer's concern about running out of power before reaching the destination. "We need to address the reasons people aren't buying electric cars," Tesla chairman Elon Musk says. "People need to feel they have the same level of freedom that they have with gasoline cars." Tesla models equipped with 85-kilowatt-hour batteries can go about 265 miles on one charge, according to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency. Those powered by 60-kilowatt-hour batteries can go about 208 miles.

That is already more range than some other electrics, like the Nissan Leaf, which on one charge can travel about 100 miles. One charge will get you only about 40 miles on the Chevy Volt, but it has a backup gasoline engine to take over when the batteries lose power.

The Tesla battery swap applies to the current Model S sedan but not the company's original car, the sleek and speedy Roadster. The Model S has been widely praised. Consumer Reports, whose test drivers are notoriously tough graders, said the Model S achieved one of the highest score of any model ever tested.

Drivers who make the battery swap will have to return to that station to retrieve their original battery, now recharged. Alternatively, they can pay to have the battery shipped back to the Tesla service facility nearest to them.

Analysts say that each swap station will cost Tesla about $500,000 to install but that in the long run, the company will likely make a profit on the fees charged for swapping. Motorists who would rather avoid the fee can instead wait the 30 minutes necessary to recharge their own batteries.

As usual, Tesla is following its own path. However, there is a precedent for battery swapping. Better Place Inc. had advocated a similar switch, but the idea never caught on. That company filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

  • Jerry Edgerton On Twitter»

    View all articles by Jerry Edgerton on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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