In response to a wide range of questions about Tesla’s battery swap program, raised primarily by Alberto Zaragoza Comendador of the blog Doubting Is Thinking, Daily Kanban has conducted an online and on-the-ground inquiry into Tesla’s battery swap program that failed to alleviate our concerns that the electric car maker’s battery swap capability exist largely as a way to maximize California ZEV credit revenue. A four-day investigation of Tesla’s only battery swap station over the Memorial Day weekend revealed no evidence that the station is actually being used to swap customer batteries. Though our investigation did not conclusively prove that the station is not being used at all, it is yet another data point in a large and growing body of evidence indicating that Tesla is not serious about deploying battery swap as a viable option for customers.
In approximately 43 hours of observation between Friday, May 22 and Monday, May 25, Daily Kanban did not observe a single battery swap take place at Tesla’s Harris Ranch, CA, battery swap station. This finding comes in spite of analysis by the American Automobile Association and IHS Automotive that this year’s Memorial Day weekend traffic is likely to have been at its highest level in a decade.
Tesla appears to have anticipated high levels of traffic over the holiday, as a notice posted on the Harris Ranch Supercharger station directed owners to two extra Superchargers installed behind the battery swap station for “additional convenience” over the holiday weekend. In spite of the addition of these two extra plugs, Daily Kanban witnessed several demand peaks over the weekend that left customers waiting in lines up to seven vehicles deep for access to Superchargers. If Tesla would be serious about battery swapping, which supposedly takes the same time as gassing up a car, nobody would have had to wait.
According to Tesla’s official announcement, participation in the program is on an invite-only basis, swaps must be scheduled an hour in advance and would cost “slightly less than a full tank of gasoline for a premium car.” In its Q1 conference call, Tesla Chief Technical Officer J.T. Straubel said that
“We do have hundreds of vehicles in the battery swap pilot program.. …it’s not like 10 or something like that, it’s hundreds of vehicles.”
However, Tesla’s head of communications Ricardo Reyes tells Daily Kanban that Tesla has invited hundreds of Tesla owners to participate in the battery swap program and that only a small percentage of those invited had elected to take advantage of the offer. Reyes also said that invitations are being sent in “tranches,” implying that more customers may still be invited. This may explain the lack of traffic Daily Kanban witnessed over Memorial Day weekend, but it hardly clarifies the Tesla’s mixed messages about its battery swap program.
In May of 2015, Tesla CEO Elon Musk stated in an apparently since-deleted tweet captured by the blog “Doubting Is Thinking” that “advance booking is needed so it doesn’t get overwhelmed.” Based on Musk’s apparent deletion of that tweet and Daily Kanban’s observations, there appears to be little risk of the station being overwhelmed.
Tesla’s skeptics have argued that Tesla’s battery swap program is effectively nonexistent, pointing to a lack of firsthand accounts of customers participation or independent documentation of the swap process. There is speculation that Tesla requires a non-disclosure agreement, as it does for its firmware upgrade beta program, but Reyes tells Daily Kanban that no non-disclosure agreement is required. One member of the Tesla Motor Club forum (username: MITE46) has posted an account and images of a swap that he says took place in April and cost $40 each way. The fact that this is the only firsthand account or image of the Harris Ranch swap station in use, along with the car’s vanity plate reference to the specific journey the station is meant to enable (“LA SF”) has raised suspicions that MITE46 is not “just another customer.” But Reyes insists that this account does not come from the company and “is not a plant.” Reyes was not able to explain why only a single account of battery swap can be found on Tesla forums and blogs, in spite of high levels of activity and information sharing among Tesla owners.
Outside of a carefully-choreographed media event demonstration that took place at Tesla’s Hawthorne, CA facility in June of 2013, these posts by MITE46 are the only evidence that Tesla swaps batteries at all. Numerous other posts at the Tesla Motor Club forum reflect Daily Kanban’s findings that the Harris Ranch swap station is not generally in use. Moreover, not a single Tesla owner we spoke to in the course of our investigation had been invited to join the battery swap beta program or even knew how to receive an invite. Reyes tells Daily Kanban that invitations were sent to customers who have a history of using the Harris Ranch Superchargers, but several owners we spoke to had charged there before and had not received an invitation.
Reyes tells Daily Kanban that participating customers tell the company they prefer the Supercharger experience to battery swap, echoing Musk’s tweet that “Supercharging is the future… for non-commercial traffic.” However, several of the Tesla owners we spoke with over the weekend said they would appreciate having the option to swap batteries. One Tesla owner called the battery swap option a “no brainer,” pointing out that “every hour we wait here is an hour my kids won’t sleep.” Another said “if it’s not available why did they announce it?”