Better Place and Renault Delivering 115,000 Electric Cars in 2011

Renault Fluence EV


On October 1, 2011, the largest electric car rollout in history–complete with charging stations and battery exchanges–will take place in the Middle East and Europe. Better Place and Renault, who have a long working relationship, will make 115,000 automobiles available to the public in Denmark and Israel. According to a presentation given to Deutsche Bank, the release will also include a joint partnership with General Electric

Bringing automobiles to market
has always been the weak point for all vendors of electric
cars. Better Place announced earlier this month that their deal with Renault for the Israeli and Danish markets was finalized.
Under the conditions of the agreement, Better Place has agreed to
purchase 115,000 Renault
Fluence Z.E. Electric
sedans. The automobiles are manufactured in Bursa, Turkey and 660 preproduction units have already been unveiled. A
separate electric compact model may also be placed on the Israeli and
Danish markets. While traveling at or below the speed limit, the
Renault Fluence is able to travel for approximately 110 miles before
needing a charge.

This will be a challenge for Better
Place. While the capabilities of the Renault Fluence are far and away
better than those of earlier electric cars, the industry is still in
its infancy. Skeptics will note that going over the speed limit and
simply being stuck in traffic both put a major dent in battery life. Additional car
batteries are unwieldy and impractical to keep in automobiles,
especially in Denmark and Israel where car models have traditionally
been on the small side.


Another challenge for Better Place will
be the performance of the Renault Fluence. The automobile takes quite
some time to recharge if one of Better Place’s battery-exchange
centers are not easily available: recharging a car using a home
electric supply takes between six and eight hours, while the
recharging centers Agassi has unveiled still require a solid
half-hour to recharge a car to maximum capacity.

Shai Agassi

But this plan is no less audacious than any of the others dreamt up by Shai Agassi. The founder of the Israeli-American
company Better Place is already unveiling a nationwide
network of electric car battery swap stations and repowering centers
in his native Israel. By 2020, the small Middle Eastern country will
have an electric car infrastructure so extensive that power docks
will be available at most gas stations, train stations and mall
parking lots. A smaller-scale project is already underway in Denmark.


Better Place’s mechanism for gas
stations to switch out car batteries is rather ingenious: The
extremely heavy batteries–which weigh approximately 550 pounds
each–are swapped out via a robotic mechanism that slides under
the car, extracts the old battery and inserts a new one. According to
Better Place, the mechanism was adapted from the Israeli Air Forces’
procedure for lifting missiles in and out and fighter planes.

Fast Company
has written
about Agassi in the past. After all, Better Place’s
plan hits most of the sweet spots when it comes to technology
coverage: Agassi is offering an ingenious, ecologically friendly
product at a price point that, if done correctly, has the
potential to create a massive new market.

Over the past few years, Better Place has
recently unveiled large scale networks in Denmark and Japan. Dong
Energy, Denmark’s largest utility company, signed
a massive deal with Better Place
enhanced by a separate Danish
government agreement to offer a $40,000 tax break on each new
electric car purchased and a refueling network based
around train station parking lots
(Dansk). In Tokyo, Better Place
has embarked on another project to create switchable-battery
electric taxis


In Israel, Better Place opened a
visitors’ center where guests make
reservations online
and get a 90 minute introduction (and, let’s be frank, sales pitch)
for their electric car. If guests have a drivers license, they can
even take one of the cars for a spin. But the one thing they cannot
do at the visitors’ center is to purchase a car–or even find out
where that can be done. Customers are allegedly simply told, “next year.”

Within Israel, Better Place has
officially registered with the influential Motor
Vehicles Importers Association
lobby and secured import licenses
from the Ministry of Transport. Israeli consumers seeking to purchase
electric cars will buy them directly through Better Place and not
from Renault.

An unidentified source gave a quote to
Israeli business newspaper Globes
that implies local car dealers may attempt to sabotage the nascent
electric car industry in Israel:


Place’s joining the association is like a Trojan Horse. Membership in
the association will allow Better Place to obtain early information
and prevent measures by regular car importers to foil or delay the
deployment of electric cars in Israel, as well as facilitate the
venture with the regulators.”

for Better Place, the biggest challenges right now are price point
and expansion into larger-size countries. Price point is a problem:
Despite deals with multiple nations, the consumer price for an
electric car compatible with Better Place’s product system is still
unknown. An even larger problem is what will be done for countries
where longer car rides are the norm. Denmark and Israel are both
extremely small states; if Better Place hopes to make inroads in
France and Great Britain–let alone the United States, their
infrastructure will have to be proven in these pilot areas first.