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Tesla sounds ready to pull the plug on promised battery-swap technology

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Elon Musk once lauded battery swap as the ultimate solution for zero-down-time electric vehicle "charging," famously demonstrating a live swap on a Model S on stage in mid-2013 — but that technology kind of fell off the map as Tesla focused on building out its network of high-speed Superchargers, finally launching with a whimper at a single California station late last year.

Now, it sounds like swaps are basically dead on arrival. In response to a question from an investor at Tesla's shareholders' meeting today, Musk was brutally honest about the situation:

We have the LA-to-San Francisco pack swap capability in place, and I believe all Model S owners in the California area have been invited at this point to try it out. And what we're seeing is a very low take rate for the pack swap station. So we did an initial round of invitations, where we did basically like 200 invitations, and I think there were a total of four or five people that wanted to do that, and they all did it just once. So, okay, it's clearly not very popular. And then we said, okay, let's expand that invitation to all customers, but I would expect that all customers roughly behave like that initial sample group.

It's just, people don't care about pack swap. The Superchargers are fast enough that if you're driving from LA to San Francisco, and you start a trip at 9AM, by the time you get to, say, noon, you want to stop, and you want to stretch your legs, hit the restroom, grab a bite to eat, grab a coffee, and be on your way, and by that time, the car is charged and ready to go, and it's free. So, it's like, why would you do the pack swap? It doesn't make much sense.

We built the pack swap into the car because we weren't sure if people would want to choose the pack swap or not. We thought people would prefer Supercharging, but we weren't sure, so that's why we built the pack swap capability in. And based on what we're seeing here, it's unlikely to be something that's worth expanding in the future, unless something changes.

For the Superchargers, as we said in the initial press release, the Superchargers are free. It's basically free long distance for life, forever. So free long distance forever is what the Superchargers are providing. Now, there are a few people who are quite aggressively using it for local Supercharging, and we will sort of send them just a reminder note that it's cool to do this occasionally, but it's meant to be a long-distance thing. But it is free long distance forever, and it's basically built into the cost of the car. And based on what we're seeing in terms of the economics, it looks quite supportable.

Of course, the poor uptake Musk saw in the "sample group" is artificially low. The current station does swaps by appointment only; no one refills their car's gas tank by appointment, so it's no wonder no one's getting a battery swap on a regular basis. In reality, Superchargers and battery swaps would both have their place if the swap infrastructure was built out enough — there's something to be said for pulling into a service station on a neighborhood corner and getting a full charge within a few seconds — but the company only has a single trial station running, and it'd be billions of dollars and years away from building that network out. For a company with many priorities, huge ambitions, and limited resources, the swaps are low-hanging fruit to cut.

Musk also mentioned that the first Model X deliveries are just a few months out; given his ambivalence, it wouldn't be surprising if they lost swap support altogether.