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Electric Vehicle Battery-Switching System Unveiled

Startup Better Place demonstrates a system for swapping out depleted batteries for charged ones.

Better Place, a company based in Palo Alto, CA, that’s made deals with numerous governments around the world to install charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, has demonstrated its battery-switch station for the first time. The event took place at 1:30 A.M. ET this morning, in Yokohama, Japan, as part of a government-sponsored exhibit. Japan is studying ways to meet a target of having electric vehicles account for half of all new vehicle sales by 2020.

One thing holding back electric vehicles is their limited range, due to the large size of battery packs and the cost of batteries. A battery-switch station allows drivers to quickly swap out a depleted battery for a charged one. If these were placed at intervals along a highway, they would allow for long-distance trips without stops to recharge the battery, which could take hours. The automatic switching system can swap out a battery in less time than it takes to fill up a gas tank, Better Place says. Other automakers, such as GM and Fisker Automotive, are opting for a different strategy to extend the range of electric vehicles. They include an onboard gas- or ethanol-powered generator to recharge the battery during driving.

Here’s a video of the switching station in operation.

Better Place says that the switching station is designed to work with a number of different battery-pack configurations. But many experts warn that, if these stations have to supply too many different types of batteries, they will become too large and costly to be practical. As it is, automakers that are developing electric vehicles are designing custom battery packs for each vehicle, rather than one pack that can work with their own vehicles as well as with those of other manufacturers. Chrysler, for example, recently unveiled five different battery packs.

The switching-station demonstration involved a Nissan Dualis SUV fitted with a battery pack that uses battery cells from A123 Systems, based in Watertown, MA. Better Place has been collaborating with both Nissan and A123, but the company says that production electric vehicles from Nissan won’t necessarily look like this.

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