Saturday, December 1, 2012

BP Or Not BP? Is That Really the Question?

Better Place is falling on hard times. They have changed CEO's faster than a prostitute changes sheets lately and all that does not bode well for any company, especially one still trying to find a market. This makes long term goals very difficult to envision when the captains are rotating in faster than pitchers on a last place baseball team. In concept, they have a great idea but maybe a bit too soon? Is it the "build a better egg timer before the Chicken is invented" scenario?

Well, I think so. They contracted with Renault for cars so now they are limited to people who want to drive EVs and who like the one single solitary model offered with the swap capability.  Tough business model. Even the i pod comes in several different versions (capacities anyway)

They did pick a near perfect place to start. Israel is a small compact, technically advanced country that endures the 3rd highest gas prices in the world. But adoption has been slow, the upfront infrastructure costs very high.  Already, BP has lost half a billion and revenue has been weak.  The next foray for them will be in Denmark.

Denmark is EV crazy and its because the government is behind the technology 100%.  Taxes for non EVs are steep making the high sticker price of an EV relatively affordable. Denmark is also one of the greenest countries on the planet, produce ample power and also has pretty high gas prices as well. But I think the weather challenges will be many. Denmark is also much colder and I am experiencing a usable range drop from the mid to upper 80's to the mid to lower 70's and it really is not that cold here.

Either way, BP has a tough uphill road and will need a lot of help and support to survive. Battery swapping is something that will happen as a compliment to driving electric but there are some technical hurdles to address.

Battery Swapping II will have much more options. I envision one branch to be much more end user friendly.  Right now, EV batteries are completely out of the reach of the normal DIY'er and that has to change. Some people simply wont accept something that they have no control over and eventually manufacturers will see that.

The Scene.  Driver pulls up to 7-11.  Gets out of the car, pushing a button that opens a hatch revealing the battery module bay. there is 12 slots but only 4 are full.   Each module is good for 15 miles and his 38 mile daily commute is well covered but preparing for the weekend to the beach is why he is here.  With a glance, light indicators tells him which modules should be swapped. He pulls them out and walks in with 2 modules and returns 5 minutes later with 8 modules. This will give him plenty of range to get there where he can inductively charge back up. The BMS instantly recognises the new modules and adjusts parameters to accept modules to insure they are depleted efficiently.

Unlike most drivers, he is single, lives in an apartment and does not have the room  (or the money) for a charging unit. His older brother is married and his two EVs are charged in his garage which also keeps  his 12 spare modules charged as well in case something comes up where he does not have the time to charge. Since his spare modules are charged either during off peak or thru his solar system, the only cost was the charging unit and the deposit on the spare modules that he does not own.

Now the above scenario has a mountain of logistical challenges.

1) BMS that can balance modules of different degradation and charge levels

2) A monumental monitoring system that must track degradation, billing, and ownership/lease issues for customers while detecting abuse, fraud and everything else people try to do...

3) A battery bay that is user friendly. The hatch thing is not going to realistic on all cars. Some cars maybe a small hatch where modules come out one at a time (if you have a 6 disc changer in your car, you can figure out the rest)  I know you guys were gonna complain that no one would want to empty their trunk in the middle of a trip to replace some batteries!!  HA!!  :)

4) Modules that are user friendly. Right now, batteries are too heavy. A module must provide enough power to be usable but at the same time, be light enough for the average person to carry.

But it does have its advantages;

* Much less efficiency penalty carrying around more battery than you need.  Recent reports of RAV 4 EVs struggling to get 3½ miles per Kwh tells me that the weight penalty question is a big one.  How many K's are we wasting on a Tesla driving around town 360 days a year in preparation for those 5 trips to Grandma's house?

* A greater level of affordability.  Unlike gas cars, we cant buy half a battery pack because we had a short check or an unexpected bill. Its make the decision at purchase time and hope you can manage it a year later.  FYI; Nov 2012 report. An uptick of people who are at least 60 days behind in their car payments. Lucky for us, they are probably behind due to spike in gas prices...

* Consumer choice. We love options. After all when everyone buys the same car, how can you talk proudly of yours when you have already heard it from 5 of your friends? Now you can talk up the charger you bought whether it be a 6 bay or 12 bay charger (Bays being the # of extra modules you can store charged and really to glow)

* Grid stability. Eventually there will be hundreds of thousands of these portable, ready to glow power packs distributed thru out the entire country.  Power out for two weeks?  pull a module, place it in the adapter station (at an additional cost of course!) and power up the house, the fridge or the big screen on Super Bowl Sunday!  Granted; they are heavy but what is to stop AZ from shipping 50,000 solar powered charged units to NY during the aftermath of "Sandy 2?"

* Range ala carte. Never worry about getting the right charge or a busted charging station out in the middle of nowhere.  Your own car will allow you to instantly check on status and supply of modules. Hate it when you venture to the store in the middle of the night to find out that your store is out of Rocky Road for only the 2nd time in 3 years? Not happening here.  We will simply steal Walmart's distribution planning software...its not like there is not enough disgruntled ex-employees out there who are willing to give us a hand now is there?

* Future proofing.  Changes in battery tech will come along but I fear the current model will be "happiness by a million tiny cuts" model perfected by intel.  I use them as an example because I was working there when they introduced the old MMX Pentiums. they started at like 200 Mhz then went to 233, then 266 etc. IOW, the technology was milked for all it was worth.  Right now manufacturers know that batteries is really the only reason to upgrade. Nissan's JPN announcement maybe unexpected to some, but not to me. Although we want it, it makes no sense to "put all your eggs  in one basket" so the nominal increase in range was expected.  A weight reduction this year,  capacity increase next year,  chemistry change the year after... This is what we call "job security"

But the new BMS only needs a module that fits into the slot. does not matter what the chemistry or voltage is or how many cells are in the module. All of that is detected and configured to work best with the other 7 disparate modules.

OK!! I am done. Your turn to flame me but keep in mind for those who think I have been drinking the "good" egg nog. I am willing to bet that if we come back 10 years from now, no one would even be close to predicting what directions and technologies EVs will have taken. How much do I think the above scenario will happen?

I dont know, but it is the Christmas season and I be dreaming of an EV Xmas!!


  1. Battery swapping has the fundamental problem that it needs to solve the same problems as the on board battery without a huge advantage.

    Problem one that battery swapping tries to solve is the speed in which you can put energy into car. This is great for the first car, they leave with a charge battery but the battery station now has a depleted battery. The station can't service another car unless they either have another charged battery (which means more battery inventory) or they have to have fast charging. But if they solve the fast charging problem then why not just the charge the battery in the car? If the batteries are cheap enough for them hold a larger inventory then it is probably cheap enough to have more batteries in the car. This obviously simplifies it a little bit but I think the fundamental forces make for tough headwinds for battery swapping.

    Right now I am impressed with Tesla's approach to the problems. Bigger battery packs and fast enough charging for longer distance driving. In my opinion they've cracked the code, they just need to drive costs down (which is the plan they have been communicating for a while now).

    We have 120,000+ miles in our 2002 RAV4-EV and 16,000+ miles in the 2011 LEAF so I think we have some sense on what it is like live with EVs.

  2. I can't do that Dave....Conceptually switching is fine but practically...just not reasonable. We Blu-Ray/HD, Beta/VHS, Franken/ChaDemo, Tesla/J1772. We just can't agree on formats. Given the format problems getting all manufacturers on the same sheet for battery access and getting the up front batteries just won't happen even with the Nissan battery plant in TN. It's just slightly more likely to happen than H2 fuel cells being mass marketed.

    2 cents + complimentary pick ax for poking holes


  3. Tom; I know the thought of swapping battery modules and rolling the dice on quality is going to be a major thought process change but that all falls back on QC of the company providing the swapping modules. My guess is dozens of regional companies like EVGo in Dallas area starting out and eventually dropping down to 3-5 companies left. But the technology to monitor the quality of the batteries is there. recording the usage history of the battery is there, etc. Like I said; this scenario is years down the line but I think we will end up with something similar.

    Arnold; I quick charge on average of 2-5 times a week and as quick as it is, its not quick enough. Plus in many areas of the country, demand charges for very high current is a huge cost premium. I also addressed the swapping station depletion question as well. EVs will need to be networked (I think this will be commonplace in most cars within the decade anyway) and simply plugging in a destination will allow the car to make recommendations on where packs are available and best locations to replace them.

    As far as what Tesla is doing? they are too far out of my price range and will be for another 5-7 years. The LEAF is here and now and serves my purpose well. But EVs cannot flourish if the requirements are 100,000 household income, garage, etc. that is a niche market. Too many people will be priced out of the market. This ala carte range leasing can work.