Better Place Rolls Out Bay Area Battery-Swapping EV Taxi Fleet

Last Updated Nov 1, 2010 6:32 PM EDT

The Better Place battery-swapping EV taxi experiment is moving from Japan to America with a new program in the San Francisco Bay area. I went all the way to Tokyo last spring to see the EV charging company swap batteries in a trio of taxis there, and was impressed with its efficiency. It is a super-fast process, taking less than a minute. In its first 90 days, the taxi fleet covered 25,000 miles on Tokyo's taxi-choked streets, and was very popular there.
My conclusion was that swapping works well, and it is ideally suited for standardized fleet vehicles like taxis that are charged at central locations. It's maybe less ideal for consumer cars, which come in infinite varieties, with many different-sized battery packs. A swap station handling any car that drives in would need to keep a big inventory of charged batteries, as well as a lot of specialized installation equipment.

So the San Francisco Bay Area rollout, with four switch stations, makes sense, especially since Better Place is getting help from the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission (whose EV announcement is pictured above). A cloud on the horizon for this kind of California EV support is next week's federal election, which in California includes two ballot propositions that would defund many of the EV programs currently underway in the state (including a lucrative $5,000 rebate on cars like the Nissan Leaf).

Better Place's California plan is much bigger than the pilot in Tokyo, involving 61 cars, and it could bring Renault, the French carmaker allied with Nissan, back onto the American scene (albeit in a limited way). Renault has been absent since the 1980s, but has recently made statements indicating a possible return with an American partner. The company builds the only current electric car with swappable batteries, but that could change.

Better Place says it hasn't yet decided which vehicle will be used as a California EV taxi. According to spokeswoman Julie Mullins, "There are discussions happening with other OEMs. This presents them with a very high-visibility way to showcase their cars in the region that will likely buy the most EVs in the U.S. early on. But it is early days, so nothing is final."

Another possibility is that Better Place, or a company it contracts, could convert a small fleet to EVs with swappable batteries, as it did in Japan with Nissans.

Better Place is wiring Israel, Denmark and a number of other countries and municipalities for electric cars. It is installing traditional chargers on poles as pat of those rollouts, but it's convinced that much faster battery swapping is a viable way forward.

According to Mullins, "We believe that what we've demonstrated in Tokyo can be replicated and scaled here in the Bay Area to really move the needle on mass-market EV adoption." The company says, "Taxis are a high-mileage, high-visibility segment that can serve as the on-ramp for technology transfer to the mass market." We'll see about that last part.

The California program will put four battery switch stations between San Francisco and San Jose, at the epicenter of the EV revolution. According to San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed in an interview, the rollout will include a swapping station at the airport, which gets heavy taxi traffic. "We've been working with Better Place on this for two years, and we think it's a great way to demonstrate the efficiency of electric vehicles." Reed said that the city, which could have 80 regular EV charging stations in place by the end of 2010, would have its first swapping station installed in a year.

Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said that its $7 million commitment to the Better Place demonstration project was part of a $33 million climate and greenhouse gas package that also included support for everything from EV parking to bike sharing.

"The idea is to test the battery swapping idea." Rentschler said. "EV charging takes a long time, so this is an option that means people won't have to wait. We're funding it to see if it will get people more interested in swapping electric cars." He said that the state program would include 61 cars, which a spokesman for San Jose identified as Renaults, which implies they'll be the same swap-ready Renault Fluence Z.E. EVs that Better Place is rolling out in Israel. Obviously, that means they'd need to be federalized for the U.S. market, which isn't going to happen overnight.

According to Better Place, its partners in the California program include cab companies, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the Plug-In America advocacy group.

Despite its financial woes, California has been putting considerable resources into supporting EV rollouts. But according to Jay Friedland, legislative director of Plug In America (a partner in the taxi rollout) the gains are threatened by Propositions 23 and 26, on the state ballot next week. They take different approaches, but both would cut deeply into state subsidies. Prop. 23 would freeze all climate-related funding under the landmark AB 32 global warming law until the state unemployment rate goes below 5.5 percent (not likely anytime soon).

Proposition 26 would define any program funded by fees as a "tax" needing legislative approval. State EV rebates are funded by an $8 fee on Department of Motor Vehicles transactions, so they'd be suspending pending a difficult approval process. According to Friedland, 23 is in trouble but 26, supported by major oil company largess, has a higher chance of passage.

Mayor Reed told me he opposes both ballot initiatives. "They could certainly affect our plans," he said. "Proposition 23 is bad, and it's difficult to figure out the impact of 26 on local communities." Whatever the impact, it won't be good.

Related:

Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Commission