Tesla to offer quick-swap battery option for long routes

Believing electric car owners want more flexibility and speed while charging up their cars, Tesla Motors unveiled a new option allowing a quick swap of battery packs in Model S cars.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk demonstrated the new battery swap process Thursday night at Tesla's design studio in Hawthorne, Calif.

Watching a Model S drive over an opening in the stage where a robot replaced the old battery pack with a new one was not terribly visual.

That wasn't the point of the demonstration.

The purpose was to show how quickly a battery swap will take place. Was it faster than filling up?

Tesla Model S
Ann Hermes | The Christian Science Monitor | Getty Images
Tesla Model S

In this case, it took 91 seconds.

To drive home the speed, Musk simultaneously showed a standard internal combustion engine Audi A8 Sedan filling up its tank with gas at a local gas station. Filling up that car took about 4 minutes.

As the Model S drove off stage following a battery swap while the Audi was still filling up, the crowd in the Tesla design studio cheered.

(Read More: Prius Sales Need a Charge)

The new battery-swap option will allow drivers on long trips to pay for a quick change rather than wait for a recharge.

"The cost of pack swap will be equivalent to the cost of gasoline," Musk said. "That is what we are going to make sure happens at the end of the day, except that obviously it will be more convenient. It will take 90 seconds and not four or five minutes."

Same cost as a tank of gas

Tesla plans to offer the battery swap option at a number of locations around the United States, including the supercharger stations the automaker is adding over the next few years.

The battery swap will first be offered later this year supercharger stations in California. It will cost Tesla $500,000 to put the new technology into each recharging location.

"We will start off with the really fast, high-traffic corridors, because the assumption here is that if you want a pack swap, time is of the essence," said Musk. "So we will start off on the I-5 corridor in California and the Boston-DC route on the East Coast and they will be co-located with the Superchargers. "

(Read More: Volt Joins Electric Car Price War)

While Tesla has not finalized how much it will cost Model S and X owners to pay for putting in a new battery, Musk expects to charge customers somewhere in the range of $60 to $80. The price will vary around the country and will be comparable to the price of about 15 gallons of gas where the battery swap takes place.

After a battery swap, Model S owners will have the option of either keeping the loaner battery or getting their original battery pack back.

It's a small price that should not stop Tesla owners from using the service on long drives.

"You will have the choice of faster at the same price you would pay for gasoline, or free (using the Tesla Supercharger) and wait a bit longer," said Musk.

Eliminating Range Anxiety

How big of a deal is the battery swap option for Tesla?

Potentially it could be huge. It remains to be seen whether Tesla owners use battery swaps in large enough numbers to make the service pay off for Tesla.

But the key is it gives electric car owners a speedy option to eliminate range anxiety. Instead of building in a 30- or 40-minute break to recharge every 260 miles on a road trip, Tesla owners can theoretically zip in and zip out of battery swap.

(Read More: Tesla Hints at Battery Swap)

If this winds up working in real life as Musk laid it out Thursday night, it would make long drives in an electric car much more reasonable.

After the demonstration Musk talked about his hope to clear one of the biggest hurdles slowing down electric car sales. "We need to address the reasons that people are not buying electric cars. So in order to have mainstream adoption, people need to feel that they have the same level of freedom that they have with gasoline cars," he said.

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.