Category: Climate

On the sublime cleverness of an electric car with swappable batteries

biro electric car

Behold the Biro — an extraordinarily cute little urban electric car, which has a nifty feature: You can yank the battery out and swap in a new one when it’s dead. Each battery lasts about 25 miles, so you could bring along a spare if you need to drive for long; or when you get home from work, you bring the battery inside and charge it overnight.

You can get a sense of how it works in this video:

Caution: This is a super twee video, so you kind of have to look past the eurohipsters-in-paradise imagery here. (What is that weird space-age recliner the dude settles into during the final shot of the video? Is that what he does when he’s waiting for the battery to recharge? Just … lie there?)

Anyway, this idea — swapping out batteries in your car — is incredibly clever. It completely upends how we think electric cars ought to work.

When we think of an electric car, we think of the battery as the tank, and the electricity that goes in as the gas. But what if we’ve got all that wrong? Maybe the analogy is more like any other battery-powered object — a camera, a remote-control, a flashlight. In those situations, the tank is the empty space where the battery goes. The battery itself isn’t a permanent part of the tool. It’s disposable. When it’s dead, you yank it out and put in a new one (then set the old one aside to recharge).

This idea — whip the battery out of your electric car and swap in a new one — would solve many, many problems that are preventing the mainstream spread of electric cars. One big problem where I live is that it’s a densely packed city, and I park on the sidewalk, usually pretty far from my house. I’d love to buy an electric car, but there’s nowhere to charge it. I can’t run a cord from my house to the random curbside spot I find for my car two blocks away. And even if I owned, say, a Tesla, I’m not gonna want to spent 40 minutes at one of Tesla’s proprietary charging stations getting a full refill. But if I could swap the batteries out? Have the whole car full charged in about two minutes? Damn, sold.

Now, this idea — a car with swappable batteries — has been tried! The Israeli company Better Place convinced Renault to build experimental cars that had removable batteries, and Better Place created a network of battery-swapping stations in Israel. The concept was that they’d work like a regular gas station, except by robot: You’ll pull in, a robot arm would reach beneath your car, then yank out the old battery and swap in a new one. It promised to be even faster to refuel an electric car than a gasoline-powered one. All it took was a metaphoric shift: You had to stop thinking of the battery as a permanent part of the car. It’s not.

Back in 2009, I visited Better Place for a New York Times Magazine story on the CEO Shai Agassi. I saw their robot mechanism at work:

On the day of the presentation, a group of investors and employees milled around, peering down with interest at the mechanism. The robot — a squat platform that moves on four dinner-plate-size white wheels — scuttled back and forth along a 20-foot-long set of metal rails. At one end of the rails, a huge blue battery, the size of a large suitcase, sat suspended in a frame. As we watched, the robot zipped up to the battery, made a nearly inaudible click, and pulled the battery downward. It ferried the battery over to the other end of the rails, dropped it off, picked up a new battery, hissed back over to the frame and, in one deft movement, snapped the new battery in the place of the old one. The total time: 45 seconds.

Agassi — a 41-year-old Israeli-American with a piercing stare — beamed. “Check this out,” he said, dragging me over and pointing at a set of thick two-inch metal hooks on the frame. The latches use the same technology as those used “to hold 500-pound bombs in place on bombers,” he explained. Designed to release bombs with millisecond precision, the technology is also perfectly suited to keeping batteries safely inside the cars, yet allowing them to be extracted in a blink. Agassi obviously enjoyed the swords-to-ploughshares imagery too.

A cool idea!

Alas, it went up in smoke. Agassi, it transpires, was a terrible manager of Better Place’s finances, and made all sorts of unrealistic sales promises; meanwhile, it wasn’t easy (read: impossible) to get car companies to agree to redesign their cars to include swappable batteries. There’s a good and brutal postmortem here in Fast Company.

Still, the basic idea — swapping out a vehicle’s batteries — is still radiantly sensible. It won’t go away; indeed, it’s already percolating up from below. In many major cities in the US, takeout-food restaurants all have electric bicycles for their delivery guys, because it makes for fast (and very cheap, fuel-wise) deliveries; and if the battery on a bike gets low you can whip it out and replace it with a new one, then take the dead one inside to charge. Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more odd little cars like the Biro. Battery-swapping makes sense for apartment-dwelling, curbside-parking urbanites. And there’s yet another area ripe for swappable batteries: Electric golf carts, the sales of which are exploding in retiree communities.

Sure, the big car companies aren’t going to lead the way on this one. Like most genuinely new shifts in engineering, it always bubbles up in the weird, small niches.

The “conflict shoreline”: A map that correlates climate change to drone strikes

Image from "The Conflict Shoreline" by Eyal Weizman

This map is a really interesting data-visualization, with a suggestive message: That climate change is very tightly woven with war and conflict.

In one sense, this relationship isn’t news. Climate change causes resource scarcity — and resource scarcity is, historically, one brutally reliable trigger of war and strife. The US Department of Defense certainly takes it seriously; last year it released a report calling climate change “an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.” Another nonprofit study recently argued that a massive 2006-2011 drought in Syria, by driving rural populations into the already-stressed cities, helped accelerate the country’s human-rights catastrophe.

But that map above suggests an even more intriguing and subtle finding: That climate change tracks conflict with such granularity that it even tracks drone strikes.

The map is from a book called The Conflict Shoreline, which I learned about tonight while reading “Let Them Drown”, a speech by Naomi Klein reprinted in this month’s issue of The London Review of Books. Klein describes the map really well, so I’ll quote her at length here:

In his latest book, The Conflict Shoreline, the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has a groundbreaking take on how these forces are intersecting. The main way we’ve understood the border of the desert in the Middle East and North Africa, he explains, is the so-called ‘aridity line’, areas where there is on average 200 millimetres of rainfall a year, which has been considered the minimum for growing cereal crops on a large scale without irrigation. These meteorological boundaries aren’t fixed: they have fluctuated for various reasons, whether it was Israel’s attempts to ‘green the desert’ pushing them in one direction or cyclical drought expanding the desert in the other. And now, with climate change, intensifying drought can have all kinds of impacts along this line. Weizman points out that the Syrian border city of Daraa falls directly on the aridity line. Daraa is where Syria’s deepest drought on record brought huge numbers of displaced farmers in the years leading up to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, and it’s where the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011. Drought wasn’t the only factor in bringing tensions to a head. But the fact that 1.5 million people were internally displaced in Syria as a result of the drought clearly played a role. The connection between water and heat stress and conflict is a recurring, intensifying pattern all along the aridity line: all along it you see places marked by drought, water scarcity, scorching temperatures and military conflict – from Libya to Palestine, to some of the bloodiest battlefields in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But Weizman also discovered what he calls an ‘astounding coincidence’. When you map the targets of Western drone strikes onto the region, you see that ‘many of these attacks – from South Waziristan through northern Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Gaza and Libya – are directly on or close to the 200 mm aridity line.’ The red dots on the map above represent some of the areas where strikes have been concentrated. To me this is the most striking attempt yet to visualise the brutal landscape of the climate crisis. All this was foreshadowed a decade ago in a US military report. ‘The Middle East,’ it observed, ‘has always been associated with two natural resources, oil (because of its abundance) and water (because of its scarcity).’ True enough. And now certain patterns have become quite clear: first, Western fighter jets followed that abundance of oil; now, Western drones are closely shadowing the lack of water, as drought exacerbates conflict.

Just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought, so boats follow both: boats filled with refugees fleeing homes on the aridity line ravaged by war and drought.

I can’t comment in greater depth on Weizman’s analysis until I’ve read his book (and after reading this I’ve ordered it). But if it holds up, as a piece of dataviz, it’s absolutely fascinating.

Klein’s entire speech is well worth reading too, as a synthesis of how climate change and human rights are inextricably entwined.