Category: Environment

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.

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