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

Shai Agassi

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."