Better Place — An Electric Car Vision Becoming Real

For the past four years, Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi has drawn headlines with his audacious plan to end world dependence on oil through a system of mass-market electric cars and roadside battery-changing stations. Today I had a chance to visit the Israeli showroom/ visitor center for Agassi’s Better Place startup — which is just months away from putting its first cars into action here.

Better Place Visitor Center / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Agassi’s vision, in a nutshell, is to make it feasible for large numbers of average drivers to switch from gas to electric cars, by:

  • Producing electric cars that are as affordable, roomy, and powerful as traditional gas-powered family sedans, and
  • Extending the range of electric cars so they are viable for long drives as well as short trips around town.

Better Place’s big innovative idea is the battery-swapping station. Like other new electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf, Better Place relies on lithium batteries that will be recharged at small pump-like charging stations at drivers’ homes, workplaces or other public spots. But it is also building a network of roadside battery-swapping stations — where drivers whose batteries are running low can drive in, have a robot replace their diminished battery with a full one, and be on their way in less than five minutes.

Cross-section of Better Place car with lithium battery in back / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Israel is the first test market for Better Place, to be followed by Denmark and Australia. The company has already sold about 300 cars here and expects to have several thousand on the road in the first quarter of 2012. It has ten battery-switch stations in final testing, with another 18-20 under construction. By March or April, there will be 40 stations that will allow Israelis to drive from Eilat to Metulla without stopping for longer than a five-minute swap.

Better Place charging spot / Photo by Ilana DeBare

My companions Shlomo Maital and Danny Shapiro and I stopped by Better Place’s visitor center in Tel Aviv, where you can test drive its cars (manufactured by Renault in Turkey). The center is as sleekly and classily designed as a Disney production, and in fact feels a bit like Tomorrowland, complete with twin life-size holographic images of Shai Agassi narrating a video presentation in its theatre.

Amidst the high-tech setting, little details reinforce the company’s environmental mission. The visitor center itself is housed in a refitted water tank that was formerly used by the oil and gas company. The plush theatre seats are in fact recycled bucket seats from old cars, with little plaques noting their former incarnation: I sat in a “1999 Mazda 626.”

We test-drove one of the cars. It’s as quiet as the hybrid Priuses that are common back home in the Bay Area, with the same initial unsettling feeling: I turned the key, but I don’t hear anything! Is it really on?  I haven’t driven a Leaf or a Prius myself, so can’t compare the driver’s experience. But it seemed as comfy and powerful as anything I’d need in my daily life, and roomy enough to be a family car. There’s an electronic information system that goes beyond the usual GPS tricks — it tells you how much battery power you have, how much battery power you’ll need to reach a given destination, and the location of the most convenient battery swapping stations on your route.

Midlife Bat Mitzvah takes a Better Place test drive / Photo by Danny Shapiro

The upfront and operating costs are in the ballpark of other Israeli cars, although structured differently. A standard Better Place Renault costs 122,900 Israeli shekels, about $36,000. Then, instead of paying for gas, owners will pay a monthly membership fee based on how much they plan to drive — for instance, 1,090 shekels ($290) each month for up to 20,000 kilometers (12,000 miles) per year. That provides electricity, a home charging spot, free access to public charge spots and battery switch stations, 24/7 customer service and free towing/transportation in case of problems. With gas going for $8 a gallon here, it’s comparable to fuelling a conventional car.

So what do I think? In the past I’ve been skeptical about Better Place — charismatic leader, tantalizing idea, but it could easily turn out to be smoke and mirrors. Agassi is aiming for nothing less than the transformation of an industry, a familiar daily routine, and a big chunk of our culture. There are lots of reasons to think he will fail.

But I’m encouraged by Better Place’s utter commitment to its vision. For Nissan, the Leaf is only one initiative among all its other conventional cars. Ditto for GM and its hybrid Volt. Those companies are experimenting with electric cars, but they also remain deeply invested in the old oil paradigm. Better Place, on the other hand, is betting the entire farm on electric cars — so has every reason to make them succeed.

And today — test-driving an actual Better Place Renault, standing beside a charging post, seeing a group of young Israelis crowd around one of the cars at the visitor center — it hit home that Better Place is really rolling this stuff out. On schedule. In the next few months. And not just as a pilot project with one or two charging stations, but through an entire country.

That is darn impressive. I look forward to seeing what happens.

Potential Better Place buyers? / Photo by Ilana DeBare

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P.S. Wondering what this little road trip had to do with my writing project here in Israel? Yep, you guessed it — Shai Agassi is an alumnus of the Technion. In fact Agassi — who started computer programming at age seven — enrolled in the Technion at age 15.

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