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Shai Agassi Has an EV Vision, Can He Make America a Better Place?

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Ever since it was founded by Shai Agassi in 2007, Better Place has taken a different approach to making a world full of electric vehicles a reality. Rather than focus on building cars, Better Place has plans to build an entire infrastructure of charge points around the world.

To tackle one of the most significant hurdles to adoption, it's developed an innovative business model that separates ownership of the car from its battery. As soon as the owner of the vehicle doesn't own the battery, battery swapping stations become possible, sidestepping the question of long charge times. A pilot program using a fleet of Japanese taxis has brought down the average battery-swapping time to 59 seconds. The first markets for Better Place will be Israel and Denmark, starting with 100,000 switchable battery EVs by 2016. But what about America?

Better Place has laid a bit of groundwork in Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area, collaborating with local officials there. But given Agassi's grand ambition—he wants to reach the guy who was about to buy a Jeep Cherokee, not the one who already owned a Prius—is he confident that he can reach the American mainstream, and mainland, with his unique model? "I think battery-switching is relevant in any country and in the U.S. especially relevant," Agassi tells Fast Company. America is, after all, the land of the road-trip and the cross-country truck haul: "Try and charge your car on a large trip, if you have to stop every 100 miles," he says. And though batteries' energy density will inevitably improve, the laws of physics—not just the constraints of R&D budgets—dictate that to fill a 200-mile battery inside of four minutes would take a cable big enough to feed electricity to the entire Empire State Building. "Now imagine, with your wife and kids in the back, how comfortable you'll feel with that," he says.

The real challenge in the American market, says Agassi, can be summed up in a few words: "$3 per gallon. You look at the U.S., and the elephant in the room is tax on gasoline. We're pricing gasoline at the cheapest price of anyone in the world." Europe prices gas at about $7 per gallon—more in some countries. "If you moved the needle on the price of gasoline," Agassi says, "you would move the needle on the next big opportunity in the U.S. And instead of doing that, we're basically waiting and looking at Europe and China running away with the next big industry—electric cars."

Every day seems to bring news about competitors that are planning charging stations—Toyota, Hertz, Coulomb Technologies, and others. Can Better Place compete, and will battery-switching become irrelevant once chargers are ubiquitous? Agassi contests the notion that they are even competitors, in a meaningful sense. "People who want to say Better Place versus Coulomb..." His voice trails off. "It's all of us together versus an oil machine of immense proportions."

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  • John C. Briggs

    Try charging every 100 miles? Well, that is probably the maximum range you have on an EV and probably cannot sustain that at highway speeds, plus you don't want to take the risk of running out. So probably need to charge every 60 miles or so.
    But wait, that is once per hour at highway speed. Are we really going to stop our EVs once per hour to either charge up or swap batteries? I don't think so.
    So what is the answer? Perhaps it is GM's E-REV (extend range electric vehicle) technology that they are putting into the 2011 Chevy Volt. This allows you to do your daily driving of up to 40 miles using only electricity, and then you can do long trips using gasoline. No chargers or battery switch stations are needed. Brilliant.
    The only thing that is not wonderful is the price, about US$33,000 (after $7,500 fed rebate). Hopefully that will come down. Still it's got to be cheaper than building out a huge infrastructure of battery swapping stations.
    Perhaps the battery switch station will work in the future when larger batteries are available, but it does not seem to make sense now. However, it does look like a great solution for taxi service.

  • MorinMoss

    The range would depend on the driving style and the weather conditions but multiple battery swaps aren't a big deal - if you check the videos of the switch stations at work, it literally takes only a minute. I expect that the range extender option will be popular but if the intent is to get everyone off of gasoline, hybrids only mitigate the problem. The most impressive thing about Better Place is Shai's business plan and his vision - he's really thought this through including how electric cars can use renewable energy for overnight charging and well as how these cars can be used to assist the grid as most will be stationary for 20+ hours per day and can feed the grid as well as draw from it.