Tesla's three-minute battery swap pilot for Model S cars sets a new bar for EV charging

Credit: Tesla

Tesla is cutting the Gordian Knot of electric vehicles: the time it takes to recharge the batteries. In a Friday blog post, the company said it would begin piloting a battery swap program this week for “invited Model S owners.” According to Tesla, the automated swap of a spent battery for a fully charged one will take about 3 minutes, compared to about 20 minutes to charge a Model S at a Supercharger station.

While it costs nothing to use a Supercharger station, however, the battery swap will have a price: “slightly less than a full tank of gasoline for a premium sedan,” according to the company. At Monday’s national average for premium fuel of $2.80 per gallon (and falling), and assuming a 20-gallon tank, let’s call that about $50 per swap.

What this means to you: Tesla throws down the gauntlet yet again. While other companies pour money into charging stations that take anywhere from 20 minutes to hours to charge a car, the maverick EV company is leading with a very expensive and complex, but much faster process. It’ll be the new standard to which all other EV charging tech will be compared. But interested owners are already wondering whether the battery swapped in will be in comparable condition to the one swapped out.

Three minutes for $50

“Do you prefer faster or free?” Tesla CEO Elon Musk asked when he announced the program last year, before showing a video of the battery swap process. An overhead screen showed a Tesla employee filling the tank of an Audi sedan, at what Musk claimed was the fastest gas station in LA—“ten gallons a minute!” he claimed.

Meanwhile, two Tesla Model S battery swaps occurred live onstage. The Model S cars drove over a special underground bay, where automated nut runners removed and re-fastened bolts at high speed and to vehicle specifications.

Note: In the original demo, the swap took about 90 seconds per car. The added step of removing the battery pack’s protective plates (added after a few unlucky Model S cars experienced battery fires) has lengthened the swap time to 3 minutes. The company claims it could shave that time back down to as little as one minute, but it's going to wait and see whether the demand justifies the investment. 

The custom-built pilot swap station will be located at Harris Ranch in central California (where Tesla already has Supercharger stations). Tesla stresses that the swaps will take place by appointment only. But tell us, Model S owners: Would you rather pay 50 bucks to swap-‘n-go, or wait 20 minutes for a free charge? Please reply in the comments.  

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