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All Charged Up, But Is It Ready To Go?

Avi Friedman

Not so long ago, electric cars were the stuff of science fiction. But if Better Place, the Israeli start-up company at the forefront of the electric car revolution, has its way, the electric car will replace its gas-guzzling counterpart in the not so very distant future. Mishpacha’s Avi Friedman does a test drive of both the car and the concept.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

car
From Route 90, Israel’s main north-south highway that traverses the length of the country, the gas station at Mahanayim Junction looks like any other service station. There are gas pumps, a small convenience store, and several roadside restaurants. But once inside the station, it’s impossible to miss a small white garage with its own service lane and exit back towards the highway. The building boasts the blue logo of Better Place, Israeli investor Shai Agassi’s attempt to convert automobile travel from gasoline-based to electricity. By the end of 2011, the station will serve as a battery swap station for the Renault Fluence Z.E., a specially adapted battery-powered version of the French manufacturer’s family sedan.
 
Better Place officials say the changing station is only part of their idea to completely overhaul the automotive industry. They contend that car manufacturers have known for years that the proverbial clock is ticking on oil-based ground transportation — some scientists say the planet will run out of oil by 2050, at current production rates. They also would argue that oil rigs are being forced to employ dangerous methods to dig deeper in to the ground to extract black gold, one possible factor that may have led to last year’s massive oil spill in theGulf of Mexico.

It’s not a reality the automobile industry is unaware of, but battery technology has simply not been able to match the convenience and efficiency of gasoline-based cars. To meet that challenge, Mr. Agassi, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has assembled a team of scientists, technology experts, and businesspeople to create a model they believe will revolutionize the automobile industry, first in Israel and then around the world.

“The main problem up to now for electric cars has been distance and cost,” said Michael Granoff, head of Oil Independence Policies at Better Place. “Batteries that are affordable to the consumer haven’t offered enough mileage
to compete with the convenience of a gasoline-powered car that can travel 300 miles or more between fill-ups. The technology exists for larger-capacity batteries, but they would be prohibitively expensive to the consumer, so no  ar companies have been willing to invest in adapting their cars.”

The Better Place business model calls for a unique solution to the problem: Customers will purchase and own their cars, but the batteries will remain the property of Better Place. That will keep the price of the electric Fluence roughly equivalent to the gasoline-powered version — about NIS 123,000, or $34,000. That will also allow the customer to spread the cost of transportation over the life of the car, as gasoline customers are able to do.

“The thought driving our entire process has been to make electric cars competitive with gasoline ones. That means the customer has to be able to drive a comparable number of miles before needing to fill up, it means the fill up needs to take a comparable amount of time, and it means charge stations have to be as convenient as gas stations,” said Granoff.

Company officials estimate that most drivers travel approximately 50 miles a day — half of the 100-mile charge power the Better Place battery contains. In the initial stage, the company will install charge posts near customer homes and places of business, giving most drivers enough charge power to meet their daily driving needs.

For longer trips, drivers will have access to more than 40 battery swap stations like the one at Mahanayim Junction, a 20 minute drive from Tzfas. There, a robot will open the hood of the car, remove the empty battery and replace it with a fully charged one in less time it takes to fill an empty SUV gas tank.

Ironically, one challenge to the Better Placemodel could be technology. The current company model and investment has focused on infrastructure development and battery maintenance, but what about the possibility that in the
next three to five years another car company will introduce an affordable battery that will power a car for 200 or even 250 miles? Or what about this scenario: Perhaps energy storage is moving in the direction of something like a
credit card-type device, in which people will simply purchase credit-card sized “energy sticks” to plug into their cars when their batteries run out. That would either make traditional batteries obsolete, or they could serve much like a spare tire: They will get you where you need to go until you’re in a position to charge up the “normal” way. In that case, changing stations would be a last-ditch effort to get a fully charged battery, but wouldn’t be the normal way to charge up the batteries.

Those developments could happen, but Michael Granoff isn’t concerned. “Battery technology is always improving, which is precisely why you don’t want to be stuck owning an old battery that you can’t sell. There is always a tradeoff between size, range, and cost. I could make a cell phone with a year of standby time, but you won’t want to pay for it and you won’t want to have to lug it around behind you on wheels. You’d prefer 48 hours of standby time at a cheap price and in a convenient form. Batteries already exist to power a car 250 miles. But if the average person drives 50 miles per day, does it make sense to pay for, take the risk on, and continuously schlep around 200 miles that you use a handful of days a year?”

 

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