Better Place Offers New Vision of the Electric Car


What if I told you that most of what you think you know about electric cars is probably wrong?

Until this week, my idea of an electric vehicle was a small car for city driving. I was vaguely aware of the work Tesla was doing with electric sports cars, but the teeny-tiny Smart Car was the image that sprang most readily to mind. (Probably because they are super-cute, like the adorable blue number our editor-in-chief Sara Ost gads about in).

But a trip to Better Place’s global headquarters in Palo Alto, California soon changed my mind. The start-up is not in this business to play around the fringes – their goal is nothing less than taking all the world’s vehicles off oil. Shai Agassi, the global chief executive, put it this way: “We can plug a single well in the Gulf of Mexico but to really stop it happening again we need to hit further down on the whole supply chain. Our exploration and production process is not drilling holes in the ground, it’s signing contracts with battery manufacturers – and 100 percent of the time that we look for a battery, we find it.”

-Electric car at a charge point.

Better Place doesn’t actually make or sell cars – they provide the infrastructure to keep electric cars on the road. The idea is a bit like a cell phone contract where the mobile operator provides a subsidized handset in return for a monthly subscription. Better Place plans to cover the cost of the battery – the most expensive component in an electric car – and the motorist will pay a monthly fee to recharge or replace the batteries. The customer would get a charging station installed at both home or work so the hours of recharging necessary can be done while the car is parked. For trips over 100 miles (160km), they would need immediate range extension and can simply pull up to a battery-swapping station and get a new battery free of charge. Trials with taxis in Tokyo have refined the battery swapping manoeuvres to 59 seconds.

Better Place is betting that it’s not the light city driving that presents the greatest opportunity for the electric vehicle industry. Convincing heavy motorists to switch is both bigger business and a greater environmental gain. And as oil prices go up and battery prices come down, it’s the people who commute long distances or drive around and around the outer suburbs of the major cities who would benefit most from going electric. The best part is that Better Place is committed to using renewable energy and having a big customer like this could really galvanize the power companies to invest in renewables.

I went for a test drive while I was out at the Better Place office – the car I drove was a Nissan that looked perfectly ordinary except for the blue Better Place decal on the exterior. (This was a prototype but Nissan is bringing out a real electric vehicle in 2013 and so are other auto makers such as Mercedes and BMW. Meanwhile, China is making heavy investments in research and development and is close to bringing out an electric car that retails for less than $8,000 new) .

-Battery swapping in operation.

After I managed to get it to start, I found it surprisingly zippy – it had especially great acceleration up hills. It was probably better than the majority of cars I’ve driven – and I’ve sampled my fair share of rental cars since getting my driving license earlier this year. If the infrastructure were taken care of, I would not hesitate to use a car like this to commute from San Francisco to the South Bay or vice versa, or for longer road trips down to Los Angeles or up to Portland. Sadly it’s not yet an option. Better Place is rolling out in Israel at the end of this year, followed by Denmark and Australia, which being continental size is a test case for the U.S. Hawaii and California will come online some time in 2012.

Of course, Better Place is not the only game in town – the US state of Washington is currently building an electric highway and there have been talks about extending it all the way down the West Coast through Oregon and California. But I do like the idea of not paying for the battery and simply paying a monthly fee and not worrying about usage charges.

We humans spend billions of dollars globally refilling our cars with a refined version of the very stuff that is currently gushing non-stop into the Gulf of Mexico, causing the biggest environmental disaster the United States has ever known. Australia alone, with a population a tenth the size of the U.S. and half that of California, spends $25 AUS million a year.

I lived 33 years of my life – in Sydney and London – without a car or driving licence. Within six months of moving to California, I was licensed. Within a year, my husband and I bought our first car – a second-hand Toyota Prius. The fuel efficiency is great but I’m already looking forward to the day when I don’t have to worry about that at all. Hopefully if fleet owners buy the cars in 2013, they’ll be available on the secondhand market by 2015 or so.

This will probably happen first in Europe, where gas prices are high and governments have tax incentives to buy electric rather than regular cars. But I’ve no doubt it will eventually happen everywhere and I can’t wait.

Photos courtesy of Better Place