YOKOHAMA, Japan -- As the mock-up electric Nissan Dualis crossover halts over the service bay, two robotic shuttles immediately start scurrying below.
One latches onto the underside of the Dualis, swiftly pulling out a spent battery pack. The other then lifts a fully charged pack into place. A green light, and away the driver goes. All in under one minute.
Welcome to the future of electric vehicles, as seen by Better Place. The Palo Alto, Calif., company aims to build an international network of battery-swap stations for electric vehicles.
The battery swap system, which made its global debut in concept form here, hopes to brush aside a major barrier to electrics: their high price.
Instead of paying thousands extra for a car because of its lithium ion battery, customers would pay piecemeal to use a battery supplied by Better Place. When the battery runs low, drivers switch it for a fully juiced one.
The business plan looks more to mobile phones than to gas stations. Customers can pay for every mile they drive or buy a fixed-rate plan that allows unlimited miles and battery swaps.
Better Place plans to open battery-swap stations in Israel and Denmark sometime next year and in California and Hawaii six to nine months later. The company will provide swap-and-go batteries for electric vehicles from Nissan Motor Co. and Renault SA.
Last week, Nissan said it will start making electric vehicles in Japan at its Oppama plant in the fall of 2010. Initial capacity will be 50,000 cars.
"In 2011, what you'll see is on the magnitude of tens of thousands" of the battery packs, Better Place founder and CEO Shai Agassi told Automotive News. "At 2013, you'll be at hundreds of thousands." He reckons each station will cost $500,000.
But the battery-swap system faces its own hurdles. Unlike gas tanks, which can go almost anywhere on a car, batteries must be under the floorboard in the middle of the car for the robots to make the swap.
After the spent batteries are removed, they are recharged in 20 minutes. Refrigeration keeps the batteries cool and prevents damage during the high-voltage charging. But repeated quick charges degrade battery life.
While Nissan and Renault are Better Place's only partners so far -- hardly enough to gain critical mass -- Agassi said he was in talks with other automakers.
"We were in serious discussions with 10 companies," he said. "The main reason we haven't seen other car markets move is we caught them in the worst 18 months of the history of the car industry. And during that time, most car companies scaled back research and development."