Shai Agassi's ambitious Better Place project has been rolling out plans for test-market EVs around the world for over a year now, and today the project took a huge leap forward with the demonstration of its first automated battery swapping station. The proof-of-concept facility was demonstrated in Yokohama, Japan.

Using a modified Nissan Dualis (Qashqai) to demonstrate the battery swap, Better Place showed how electric car owners can quickly and easily fill up with a full charge - without ever leaving their cars. It takes about a minute in all, shuttling a new battery up into the vehicle and returning the depleted one for charging and reuse.

“Today marks a major milestone for the automotive industry as well as for Better Place,” said Shai Agassi, founder and CEO of Better Place. “For nearly a century, the automotive industry has been inextricably tied to oil. Today, we’re demonstrating a new path forward where the future of transportation and energy is driven by our desire for a clean planet and a robust economic recovery fueled by investments in clean technology, and one in which the well-being of the automotive industry is intrinsically coupled with the well-being of the environment.”

Looking past the rhetoric, Agassi's words do highlight the importance of the battery switch station: bringing the possibility of EVs to a much wider audience. Currently only urban dwellers that can afford a second car are really potential EV owners due to their limited range. But with the possibility of a network of battery swap stations, the electric car's range becomes effectively limitless.

And that marks the next step in the project's development, building that network of stations. That will entail developing the Yokohama station's technology into a full production solution. The first places to get the swap stations will be Better Place's existing test markets, including Israel, Denmark, Hawaii and Melbourne. Don't expect to see the stations until 2011 or 2012, however, as that's when Better Place is planning its roll-out in its select markets.