Electric Cars with Swappable Batteries May Soon Make It to San Francisco

Scooter rental company Scoot is partnering with startup CHJ Automotive.

Getty Images / Christian Heeb

Battery swapping was supposed to be the thing that made electric cars practical, but as far as we know, even Tesla hasn't been able to make it work on a large scale. Now two unlikely partners are giving electric-car battery swapping another go.

Scoot, a company known for renting electric scooters in San Francisco, will bring small electric cars made by Chinese startup CHJ Automotive to the city. The cars will be equipped with swappable batteries, and so far, the biggest problem appears to be coming not from the batteries, but from San Francisco regulations, according to Engadget.

The plan calls for CHJ to supply small electric cars roughly the size of a Smart Fortwo. Drivers will be able to reserve one with an app, drive it to their destination, and just leave it parked on the street for the next user. Maintenance crews will drive around swapping batteries to ensure that cars are always ready to go.

However, current San Francisco regulations don't allow car-sharing vehicles to be left in just any parking space. When BMW operated its DriveNow car-sharing service in the city, its cars had to be left in designated spots. San Francisco also doesn't have much on-street parking, complicating matters further. Those issues led BMW to pull out of San Francisco in 2015. The car-sharing service was subsequently rebranded as ReachNow and relaunched in Seattle.

Scoot and CHJ hope that the small footprint of their planned electric car will make regulators more inclined to change the rules. The partners also hope to leverage Scoot's existing track record from operating its scooter-rental service in San Francisco. Scoot has actually experimented with cars before. In 2015 it launched the Scoot Quad, a Nissan-branded version of the Renault Twizy, on a limited basis.

Even if Scoot and CHJ can address the regulatory issues, the logistics of implementing their battery-swapping system could prove challenging. Getting batteries to and from a fleet of cars spread around a large city won't be easy, and with longer-range electric cars becoming more common, soon it may not be worth the effort.