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Tesla Motors: Could electric cars 'refuel' faster than gas cars?

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Noah Berger/Reuters/File

(Read caption) A customer drives a Model S out of Tesla's factory in Fremont, Calif. Tesla Motors is dropping hints that it could make an announcement about battery-swapping in the coming weeks.

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Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk has a way with bold statements. This via Twitter, from last week:

"There is a way for the Tesla Model S to be recharged throughout the country faster than you could fill a gas tank."

It's a bit of a holy grail for an industry eager to overcome "range anxiety," the fear of running out of power. But what if electric cars could refuel as quickly and conveniently as gas cars?

Mr. Musk's tweet, as well as a hint dropped in Tesla's latest quarterly report, suggests the company is working on a "battery-swapping" feature that would accomplish exactly that. 

It would probably work this way: Once a driver was low on power, he could drive to a station that would swap out his battery for another fully charged one.

It's not the first time Tesla has floated the idea. The Model S was designed in 2009 with battery swapping in mind, but the feature was never implemented. In 2012 the company set up a network of fast-charging "Superchargers" in California and on the East Coast. There's no battery swapping. But the Superchargers, a direct response to driver concern over lack of range, could be upgraded with the technology to do the battery swapping.  

Other electric-car companies have entered the battery-swapping game with little to show for it. Silicon Valley-based electric car venture Better Place has spent more than $1 billion setting up battery-swap stations resembling car washes across Israel and Denmark. But sales are slow and the company has ousted three CEOs in the span of four months, as the company struggles to remain viable.

Although Renault implements Better Place's battery-swapping technology in its Fluence ZE car, the chief executive of the French carmaker is skeptical of the idea. "When you look at the overall trends, we must conclude that replaceable batteries are no longer the main track for electric vehicles," CEO Carlos Ghosn told Danish online news site Energi Watch

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Some say the electric car doesn't need a gas-station equivalent. After all, many electric car enthusiasts say they do the vast majority of their charging overnight. Nissan reports that 90 percent of Leaf drivers do their charging at home. That's likely because the average American drives less than 29 miles a day, well within the range of a single charge. 

But most analysts agree that if the electric car is to ever seriously compete in the mainstream, it will need to overcome drivers' range anxiety – however warranted or unwarranted it may be. 

Tesla appears headed in that direction, and silencing critics along the way. Last week, it received a near-perfect score from Consumer Reports. It's stock price is surging – so much so the company announced it would issue more shares to pay down a loan from the Department of Energy. That should help the company defend itself against those who paint the car as a waste of taxpayer money.

Still, some offer a "reality check."

"[T]he Model S is hardly one point away from flawless," Michael Harley, an editor at Autoblog.com, wrote in a CNN op-ed. "Even after overlooking all the Model S' objective blemishes ... electric vehicles lack a national infrastructure of charging points, accessible cross-country range and remain cost prohibitive for most consumers."

 

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