In front of gathered media and Tesla enthusiasts in Hawthorne, Calif., on Thursday night, California electric-vehicle maker Tesla did something quite remarkable. It parked a Model S sedan over a staging area with guided rails (similar to the rails at an automated car wash) and, via robotic arms beneath the car, swapped out the car's battery pack for a new one in about 90 seconds — nuts, bolts and all.
Currently, Model S owners who show up at Tesla's network of quick-charge "supercharger" stations can get enough juice for 180 miles' range in just 30 minutes for free.
Now, if you're in a hurry — or the station already has a line for the fast chargers — Tesla will perform an automated battery swap for about as much as it costs to fill up at a gas station.Tesla currently has eight fast-charge EV stations for its owners: six in California, and one each in Connecticut and Delaware. The automaker expects to install 19 additional stations this summer and dozens more by year's end.
Automotive News reports (subscription required) the battery-swap bays should be constructed by the end of 2013, and the service will cost $60 to $80 plus an additional fee if you want to keep the new battery, which has a fresh warranty. You can also return for the pack you turned in, presumably on the return leg of your trip, and avoid the fee; Tesla recharges it in the meantime. Each Tesla center will have above- and below-ground storage for the battery packs, which weigh around 1,000 pounds apiece.
Check out Tesla's video here. In it, Tesla CEO Elon Musk stood by as a Model S received a 93-second battery swap. In a parallel video, an Audi A8 needed well more than 3 minutes to fill its 23.8-gallon tank. Of course, even the V-8 powered A8 has 450 miles of range after that amount of time.
"We have automated nut runners — these are the same nut runners that we use in the factory — and they find the spot where the bolts are and automatically torque the bolts to the exact specification that each bolt needs," Musk said. "It's torqued to the battery specification every time there's a battery-pack swap."
Questions abound, but the news is so fresh Tesla has yet to put out a press release. The video shows little of what's happening underneath the car, and it's unclear whether the service will be available for Model S owners with the car's base, 40-kilowatt hour battery pack, or if you need the car's optional 60-kwh or 80-kwh packs. And given Tesla's forthcoming fast-charge network covers plenty of snow belt states, it will no doubt be a challenge to maintain full battery charge on stored units in the winter.
Stay tuned for more.