TOKYO — Click, whirr, click, slide. That’s the sound of a Nissan electric taxi getting its battery pack switched in less than one minute. That murmur you hear in the background is the Japanese press, who have gathered en masse to see the spectacle of the world’s first battery switching demonstration from Better Place, the ambitious charging company that wants to wire the world for electric cars.
The company is headed by the charismatic, Israeli-born Shai Agassi, who has signed up whole countries for electric vehicle (EV) charging stations: Australia, Israel and Denmark among them. He also has cities in the U.S. lined up. In Japan, he’s partnered with the federal Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and Nihon Kotsu, Tokyo’s largest taxi operator in a city with 60,000 taxis (more than London, Paris and New York combined). Here’s my video interview with Agassi on what he’s up to:
Agassi is intent on proving to the world that battery switching — an integral part of his charging plan — is practical for mass adoption. It’s part of his most advanced charging plan in Israel, where he will demonstrate the full, integrated system of public charging stations, home chargers and battery swapping later this year.
Swapping is indeed a home run for taxis and other fleet vehicles that share a home base and need to be on the road virtually all the time. Taxis, for one, don’t have time for a six- to eight-hour recharging scenario. Better Place’s scheme keeps them on the road continuously. There are three taxis (converted Nissan Rogues) in the program, which lasts only three months (but could be extended). These conversions have small battery packs, so they could need to swap batteries as many as six times in one 24-hour cycle.
If all 60,000 taxis in Tokyo were made swappable, they would give rides to a million people who could take a look at the “Going Electric” brochures and on-demand video in the back seat. This is, after all, a city with serious air pollution concerns where one in 10 passersby in Tokyo are wearing face masks (actually there to protect against cedar pollen, but the symbolism is striking).
According to Kiyotaka Fujii, president of Better Place Japan, at a mobbed press conference, “The model we establish here can be easily copied in other Asian cities. We want Tokyo to be the green taxi capital.”
Agassi said he is in serious discussions with other taxi fleets around the world that want to see if the Tokyo experiment works. The next step for battery swapping could be delivery vehicles from companies like UPS and FedEx, both of which are serious about greening their fleets. Also worth a look, Better Place says, is para-transit — the shuttle vans that take the elderly and the infirm to services.
We took a quick ride in the taxi, which was indeed as quiet as indicated, though it was hard to tell in the cacophony that is Tokyo traffic. And at the end of the ride — click, whirr, slide — and we had a new battery pack.