Tesla's Next Move
We've been watching the patents in the Green Technology space for quite some time. One of the more interesting sets of patent grants are the patents awarded to Tesla and Better Place during the USPTO Green Technology Pilot Program.
Tesla received free accelerated examination for an invention that improves the vehicle handling of an electric vehicle. A curious award under the program where there were many curious awards. USPTO determined that improving the driving experience of an electric vehicle would make the products more attractive to the driving public. More electric cars, less air pollution and lower fuel consumptions so it's green. (Tesla received US Patent 7,741,750, Induction motor with improved torque density.)
Better Place, an electric battery and charging network provider based in Israel, received a series of patents on their battery swapping system under the USPTO Green Tech Program. Better Place put forth the idea that instead of the long wait for your electric vehicle (EV) battery to charge, you swap out the battery for a new one. The benefit being that it takes about the same time as it takes to fill the tank of an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. The battery swapping approach compensated for adoption issues battery charging times posed for the EV market.
Locally, all-electric vehicles were rejected by regional taxi authorities because of the risk of passengers being stranded in their taxi if a battery died, unpredictable traffic patterns which might necessitate refueling, and the limited driving range of an EV, not to mention the potential for passenger anxiety based on the possibility of either of these happening while you are trying to catch a flight at one of the outside of town airports. Battery swapping seems like an answer to this problem. It also seemed like a good "go-to-market" strategy for advancing the EV market in the taxi space since you could equip all kinds of places where taxi's hang out waiting (airports, bus stations, train stations, hotel parking garages, shopping centers) with the battery swapping systems rather than having to establish a full blown commercial network out of the box. There are size and infrastructure requirements but many of these places have the space to accommodate these types of installations.
Better Place's battery swapping business model adopted the home BBQ propane gas tank business model. Bring your empty back and we'll swap it out to a full one. No waiting for a fill. Just give us your tank pay for the full one and you are on your way. The Better Place model owned the batteries and the user paid a fee to have them swapped.
Now Tesla has adopted the battery swap approach with a slightly different version of the propane tank business model, the car owner owns the battery and is chcarged a $60-$80 swap fee, a swap cost close to the cost of a current tank of gas of a comparable high end luxury vehicle. Using the DC to NYC test, there was consensus that if you can't hit the road and make it from DC to NYC with only one quick stop for a fill-up and a bathroom break it's a road trip deal breaker. There are no rest stops on that route that are worth wasting an hour of your life while you wait for your car to recharge. (The Phil Lebeau of CNBC redo of the NYTime DC to Boston Tesla test drive featured his "getting stranded" anxiety playing out on TV and he had a chase car with camera men.)
The Link-O-Matic (below on mobile and to your right on traditional devices) has links to YouTube demos of both Better Place and Tesla battery swapping. The Better Place video provides more technical detail on how their patented battery swapping technology works. The Tesla video confirms that the swap time is comparable to a standard fill-up at a gas station.
It will be interesting to see how the battery swapping patent game plays out. Better Place filed for liquidation. Their patent portfolio may turn out to be an important part of their liquidation strategy shifting the company from an operating entity to a non-practicing entity by virtue of their liquidation request and their portfolio of battery swapping technology patents. It may be interesting see if one of the other major holders of intellectual property, operating companies like Ford or NPEs like Acacia or IV step in to acquire the patents out of liquidation because of their potential value. It might depend on their forward looking perspective on where the EV market is heading.
This is an area to watch from a green tech adoption perspective, from a patent perspective, and from a general interest on whether Elon Musk, Tesla's CEO, will be able to move Tesla into the mainstream Right now there is nothing interesting enough to warrant hanging out for an hour at a rest stop/charging station on waiting for the car to charge. Battery swapping might change the paradigm to wider adoption than technology to improve the EV driver experience.