Tesla battery swap a dead end

Last night, Tesla Motors demonstrated how a service station could accomplish two battery swaps for the Model S in the time it takes to fill a gas tank. Problem is, that technique works only for Tesla.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
3 min read

Tesla's demo shows how fast the Model S's battery can be swapped.
Tesla's demo shows how fast the Model S's battery can be swapped. Tesla

One hundred years ago, car makers could have devised different fuel types and filling techniques for their internal-combustion cars, and drivers would have had to visit a Ford station, a Dodge Station, a Chevy station, or whatever the make of their car, to fill the tank. Fortunately, gasoline and filling standards prevailed.

In a publicity stunt last night, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk began pushing electric cars on the nonstandard path that gasoline cars didn't take.

At Tesla's design studio in Los Angeles, Musk showed a video of a Tesla employee filling the tank of an Audi, while simultaneously a Model S drove onstage and had its battery replaced. A timer ticked off the seconds and, as the Model S battery swap was finished in 90 seconds, another Model S rolled out for its battery swap. Meanwhile, the Audi took more than 4 minutes to fill up.

The demonstration was completely realistic. The Model S was designed for quick battery swaps. You can argue that the Audi driver took extra time swiping his card to pay for the gasoline, but Tesla could use automatic payment technology, as the Model S is a very connected car.

Watching Tesla's video, it gave me chills -- the bad kind -- when Musk said Model S owners could pull into a "Tesla station." Will the landscape be populated with Nissan Leaf stations, Honda Fit EV stations, Ford Focus Electric stations?

One advantage of electric vehicles is that the grid is pretty much everywhere. There are charging posts in public and private garages. We don't need dedicated stations, as we have for internal-combustion vehicles.

Of course, this battery-swapping technique isn't Tesla's first move down the nonstandard path. Its fast-charging technology, supplied by its network of Superchargers, is also a proprietary standard. Tesla's Superchargers and its battery swap technique are great for Model S owners, but bad for electric-car development in general.

Tesla's "walled garden" approach is common in the technology industry. Apple, from which Tesla seems to have derived some of its inspiration, is notorious for coming up with proprietary technologies. Likewise, mobile phone makers tend to embrace captive markets, good for their bottom lines, but limiting consumer choice.

Don't get me wrong, I think most of what Tesla Motors -- and Musk -- have accomplished is brilliant. I absolutely love the Model S, and do think it is an excellent template for the future of the electric car. I reviewed one last year and gave it CNET's Editors' Choice Award. It also earned our Tech Car of the Year award.

I have also been extraordinarily impressed with how Tesla built up a luxury car manufacturing plant faster than it would take most automakers to approve a new design.

The Model S not only gives Tesla Motors credence as a serious automaker, but it also serves as a flagship for the nascent electric-car industry. In that regard, Tesla should be pushing for standards, especially in fast-charging. The company should be opening up its fast-charging technology to the SAE for standards approval, or adopting the SAE's new Combo fast-charging technology. I wouldn't suggest the rival ChadeMo standard, just because the bulky, ugly plugs don't go with the Model S' elegant aesthetic.

If Tesla continues to ignore standards, the company could end up with Tucker and DeSoto, abandoned on the shoulder of the great American highway.