California-based Better Place has teamed up with China Southern Power Grid to introduce a fully automated battery switch-out operation for electric vehicles in Guangzhou, the third largest city in China. If the idea is to make recharging an EV battery just as quick and convenient as buying a tank of gasoline, this seems to be the ticket, and Better Place is confident that Chinese car buyers will go for it. The question is, can the concept break through to the mass market in Better Place’s home country, the U.S.
Breaking Down Consumer Barriers to Electric Vehicles
Better Place’s system is a futuristic facility that looks like a scene left on the cutting room floor from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Called the Switchable Electric Car Experience Center, it leaps over one major barrier to mass consumer acceptance of electric vehicles by cutting down the length of time it takes to recharge a battery. Though battery technology is improving, recharging a typical EV battery still takes far longer than a trip to the gas station.
Using the Past to Launch the Future of Electric Vehicles
The Switchable Electric Car Experience Center may sound like a Jimi Hendrix lyric, but the emphasis on experience is no accident. The experience of using the system is practically identical to the old familiar automated car wash, the kind where you sit in the car and enjoy the ride as it moves along a track while getting sprayed, brushed and buffed.
How Automated EV Battery Switch-out Works
The “Experience” starts off with a quick wash of the car’s undercarriage, but the real meat of the operation is hidden in a basement level. After the wash, a trap door opens and an automated forklift reaches up, unlatches the spent battery, shuttles it off to storage, and returns with the replacement. Once the new battery is snapped into place, the driver gets a dashboard signal that the switch was successful, and that is that. From start to finish, the whole thing takes just a few minutes.
Selling Electric Vehicles in China…
Familiarity is an advantage but it is not necessarily a deciding factor in China’s car market. Very few Chinese own cars, so the switch-out concept has a chance to start with a clean slate. Dan Cohen, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for Better Place explains that “with only 2% of China’s population owning cars and 80% of sales in 2009 to first-time car buyers, China has the opportunity to create and lead an entirely new category around clean transportation.”
…vs. Selling Electric Vehicles in the U.S.
Selling the system in the U.S. is an entirely different matter. Here, gasoline vehicles have practically universal market penetration and they have a generations-long, extremely close cultural identification with what it means to be an American. In this kind of market, familiarity could make a decisive difference, and the functional connection with the automatic car wash experience could be a key factor in helping the switchable battery concept break through the consumer barrier.
Electric Vehicles and Rugged Individualism
The EV battery switch-out concept also highlights one major difference between electric vehicles and gas powered vehicles that could appeal to old “rugged individual” tradition here in the U.S., and that is the range of choices available to EV owners. Where gasoline vehicles are tied down to commercial gas stations, EV owners can avail themselves of a greater range of options that mesh with their individual needs. That includes commercial
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.