You Tell Us: Electric Vehicles Go Plug-and-Play

Photo: Better Place

Electric cars are quiet, deliver a tremendous burst of torque from a dead stop, and don’t spew a noxious trail of chemicals that exacerbate global warming—and you can bypass refueling stations because you’ve already ”fueled up” at home or at work.

So why don’t we have any? Because batteries that offer the energy storage and power density sufficient to handle a day’s driving (typically 130 km) don’t come cheap. And what if you decide to pack up the car and take your family to visit relatives who live, say, 600 km away? Where do you go to recharge during the trip? And how long would that pit stop take?

A new company called Better Place claims to have come up with a practical solution to the cost and range problems of these batteries. The company, based in Palo Alto, Calif., says it will sell electric cars specially designed so that their battery packs are easy to remove. The company plans to build a network of facilities where drivers could stop and swap a depleted battery pack for a fully charged one in about 10 minutes. The company will also dot cities with public charging facilities that would allow commuters to plug in while they’re at work and get enough juice for the return trip.

Owners of Better Place EVs would subscribe to charging plans similar to the calling plans that cellular phone carriers offer. These plans would allow consumers to effectively prepay for these battery swaps by purchasing future recharges in terms of distance traveled—say, in blocks of 20 000 or 30 000 km a year.

Initially, Better Place will offer a modified version of the Renault Mégane, a small car that comes as a five-door hatchback or station wagon or as a two-door coupe. Preproduction models go from zero to 100 km in about 8 seconds and top out at about 210 km/h. Better Place is now doing pilot tests and plans a wider-scale rollout in Israel and Denmark in 2011.

Better Place, not the car owner, will actually own the batteries, which will be produced by Renault’s strategic partner Nissan. The start-up says that retaining ownership of this $10 000 piece of equipment will help to keep the consumer’s up-front costs down.

But there are several nagging concerns that may cause the car project to stall. How is the company to prevent the swapping of a battery that delivers a healthy range between charges for one that doesn’t deliver nearly the same distance on a full charge because it’s undergone numerous charging cycles? There’s also the matter of stocking the swapping stations with enough topped-up batteries to ensure that someone pulling in with a nearly dead battery doesn’t have to wait while the replacement reaches full charge. And if the point of all this is supposed to be the elimination of fossil fuel as the power source for automobiles, where will all of the electricity for these battery-swapping stations (and for the home and public chargers) come from? As was noted in ”How Green Is My Plug-In?” (IEEE Spectrum, March 2009), there’s not nearly enough renewable energy online to offset the amount needed for vehicle propulsion. So coal and natural gas are bound to be part of the equation.

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