PALO ALTO, CA – Better Place is not strong-arming auto makers into designing electric-vehicles with switchable batteries. That trend is occurring independently, says a key executive with the EV service provider.

Better Place advocates standardized designs as a means to extend the range of EVs. Such standardization, maligned as unfeasible by some industry experts, would accommodate swapping drained batteries for fresh ones to nullify range concerns.

“I can tell you that if we go back two years, the initial reaction was, ‘This can’t be done. Technically, it’s crazy,’” says Sidney Goodman, vice president-automotive alliances. “That has gone away.”

Auto makers have begun to realize the benefits of locating a battery on the underside of an EV, Goodman says. And this plays right into Better Place’s business model.

The brainchild of Shai Agassai, former president of information technology giant SAP AG, Better Place has developed battery-changing stations akin to automatic car washes. Motorists drive in with a drained battery and drive out minutes later with one that is fully charged.

As mainstream auto makers launch their first wave of EVs, expected in the next 18 months, designs will vary. And none likely will accommodate battery-swapping.

“The OEMs are saying, ‘Guys, we have to finish. We’re in the cycle now,’” Goodman tells Ward’s in an interview here at Better Place’s corporate headquarters.

In the next wave of EVs, “you’ll see that the battery is low-centered, under the vehicle, for the low-gravity point, for safety, from the (crumple-zone) perspective,” Goodman says. “That’s the right design.”

Expect to see evidence of this trend at next week’s Frankfurt auto show, he says, adding service also is made easier when a battery is located beneath the vehicle.

Tesla Inc., the only company selling highway-capable EVs, is developing a sedan, the Model S, with this feature.

Mike Donoughe, Tesla’s executive vice president-vehicle engineering and manufacturing, likens this business model to the one that supports backyard-grilling enthusiasts.

“You go to a service station; you have your empty (propane) tank and just pop on a new one. Because they’re all standardized,” Donoughe says.

“We’re designing the Model S for a fast-change battery. When I say ‘fast,’ I’m talking five or 10 minutes. That’s our plan. When you think about it, it shouldn’t be that hard to do.”

The Model S is due out in fourth-quarter 2011.

Ford Motor Co., which has two known EV launches in its pipeline between now and 2011, has expressed skepticism about common designs. And considerations such as cooling systems make battery-swapping problematic to begin with, the auto maker has said.

Replies Goodman: “The battery has to be an autonomous unit. Which means your thermal management is taken care of internally. You want to have to minimize the connections between your car and the battery.”

Better Place, which opened a battery-swapping station earlier this year to accommodate an electric-car program in Japan, envisions two connections: one to secure the battery to the vehicle and another to serve as a conduit.

The Better Place model also absolves EV buyers from owning batteries. They would buy only the vehicle, thus reducing its sticker price, while Better Place owns the batteries that supply the vehicle with power.

Motorists simply subscribe to a service, buying “miles” in the same manner wireless users pay for minutes, Goodman says, adding: “We look at the battery as part of the infrastructure.”

But swapping stations are not where Better Place is parking its largest investment.

“If you looked at our investment in the infrastructure, the majority would actually go to the charge spots,” Goodman says, referring to strategically located hookups in parking lots. There, EV owners can “top up” their charge whenever and wherever their vehicles are parked.

“I don’t want you, as a driver, to start driving around and looking, hoping that you will be able to find that one (place) that has the charge spot. Wherever you go, there will be a charge spot.

“And we’ll put them down,” Goodman says. “A lot of them. Hundreds of thousands.”

Better Place, which also is developing a navigation system to help motorists find charge spots, will establish its first nationwide network by setting up between 50,000 and 100,000 locations in Israel in 2011.

Unlike Aerovironment Inc., which also is launching a network of charge spots, Better Place units will be branded as such. “The brand is definitely part of our proposition,” Goodman says.

Aerovironment has said it would brand its sites to complement their hosts, such as big-box stores or gas stations.

emayne@wardsauto.com