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Better Place Demonstrates Battery Swapping

Will battery switching work to speed the electric vehicle (EV) recharging networks of the future? The idea that cars can plug in for short trips and swap batteries for those of more than 100 miles is part of the core business plan of California-based, privately held Better Place. The company kicked off the current plug-in race by signing a comprehensive agreement with Israel (birthplace of Better Place CEO Shai Agassi).

Some skeptics have said there are too many variables to make battery-swapping work, but Better Place demonstrated its own proprietary system in Yokohama, Japan today. The system is largely automated. As Reuters points out, it resembles "a really slick-looking car wash," using robotic shuttles to remove the depleted battery and slot a fresh one in place. The whole process takes only a minute (less time than refueling, Better Place points out) and driver doesn't even get out of the car. Better Place revealed its technology in a late-night video event, but you can see it here: According to spokesman Jeff Curry, Better Place was invited by the Japanese Ministry of Environment to demonstrate both its switching and battery charge spots as part of broader EV study. The demonstration used a Nissan crossover battery car--The Renault-Nissan Alliance is Better Place's partner in Israel. Curry said the Alliance "has been aggressive in this space, and is developing a complete line of EVs." Nissan itself has also been suffering financially (posting a $2.3 billion net loss for fiscal 2008), but seems committed to its EV launch plans.

The Alliance, which is also signing its own recharging agreements around the world, showed off its first EV platform, test-mounted in a Nissan Cube, at Bear Mountain State Park in New York earlier this week. The unnamed battery EV, with unique styling and platform, will debut next year.

"As a customer, you don't necessarily want to own the battery outright," Curry said. "It's another $12,000 on top of the cost of the car. The battery you bought today would soon be replaced by newer and better technology."

Under Better Place's plan, most charging would take place at widespread charging points near home, office and shopping. "You wouldn't need to swap batteries very often," Curry said. "Most of the time you'll be topping off at home."

How many switching stations will be needed "depends on how people drive in local markets, and how the travel corridors are laid out," said Curry, adding that 100 switching stations will probably be enough for Israel, which is the first country getting wired. The first 17 charging spots were installed six months ago, but that's just the beginning: Better Place says it will have 150,000 by 2011.

Curry said "hundreds and hundreds" of charging spots have been installed in, among other cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Battery swapping is still just getting started, however, and that prototype station in Yokohama is the only one.

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