Test-Driving the Better Place Electric Vehicle Experience (Plus: See Their Roadside Battery-Swap Station in Action)

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A cross section of an electric vehicle conversion of a Renault Laguna on display at Better Place in Tel Aviv.

Traffic crawled along the beltway outside Tel Aviv as the sun set in bright orange streaks behind the city. I sat with a group of journalists in a silver Volkswagen van that slowly lurched toward the headquarters of Better Place, the three-year-old company that aims to connect Israel tip to tail with electric-car charging stations. At dusk, we arrived at their headquarters on the outskirts of the city behind what used to be a massive gas storage tank, ready to test drive their EVs, see a battery-changing station in action, and barrage employees with questions. We were greeted by a crisp modern building that embraces the irony of its location and hums with the excitement of the company's impending commercial launch in 2011.
It's not just busy employees that are keeping things buzzing -- 40,000 visitors, have passed through the door since Better Place opened opened to the public in February 2010. That's largely been Israelis interested in owning or test-driving an electric vehicle, but also includes international political delegations, celebrities (Leonardo DiCaprio stopped by), and tourists. (If you go, know that registration is required prior to arrival.)

Better Place has already gained notoriety for the vision of its founder, Shai Agassi, whose business model imagines a product service system where drivers have access to a car, "clean" fuel, and top-notch customer service. With 1,500 electric-car charging stations already installed throughout Israel, Better Place aims to add thousands more by the end of 2011, when the Renault Fluence ZE (for "Zero Emissions") is introduced to Israel's thriving car market.

Visiting Better Place HQ in Tel Aviv (You Can Go, Too)
Seated in an impressive theater with a giant screen and comfy seats reclaimed from old cars (I settled into a 1995 Suzuku Baleno), our group, which was visting oin behalf of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, watched a film flash by on the massive screen in front of us. It explained that 2 million hybrid cars have been purchased in the last 15 years. Hooray! On the other hand, 500 million fuel cars have been purchased. Oh. Uh-oh.

The theater is impressive, the film is flashy, and a futuristic likeness of Shai Agassi pops up on hologram-like panels to the right and left. The "wowza!" effect is high, and while I couldn't help but feel a little cynical about the over-simplification of the awesomeness of electric cars (how can they be zero-emissions if the most of the energy that powers them comes from coal? how do electric cars help us move away from the environmental burden of driving? is it possible that what electric cars offer is a better version of a transportation system that's broken, rather than a solution to a deep-rooted infrastructure issue?), I was willing to play along because the Disney-like experience is pretty cool, and I liked an Agassi soundbite that goes, "We're offering subscription instead of addiction." Plus, we were about to test drive some electric cars, and test-driving electric cars is fun.

Electric cars do, of course, have their place in greening the transportation sector. Yes, the grid is getting cleaner all the time, they can help us to diminish oil consumption and dependence on foreign oil, air pollution in cities will go down, and they are quiet. As Sidney Goodman, who leads the company's Automotive Alliances group, aptly pointed out to us in Tel Aviv, "Controlling the energy plant, as opposed to controlling two million tail pipes in Israel -- that alone has huge benefits in terms of health and air quality."

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Electric vehicles at their charging stations outside Better Place. Photo: Meaghan O'Neill
How the Better Place Electric Vehicle Subscription Model Works
Customers who sign up with Better Place when the service launches to Israeli consumers toward the end of next year will own the electric car they buy. (It helps that 60% of all cars in Israel are essentially subsidized by employers, and that employers -- who typically pay for employees' gas -- stand to save a lot of money if they are paying for electricity rather than diesel). But instead of paying for fuel at the pump, they'll pay for the service of accessing the electricity that will charge their car from any public charging station nationwide, plus the installation of two charging stations (one at home, one at work, theoretically), on-demand customer service, and battery changing stations -- that is, changing stations where a driver can literally swap out his car battery in fewer than five minutes instead of waiting to power up via an electric charging station. (See the video below to see just how fast it is.)

Better Place will even pay for the electricity used at the charging stations. Forget for a moment that it won't put a dent in Tel Aviv's traffic congestion ("This is Israel," said our guide with a shrug about the bumper-to-bumper traffic. "That's how it goes.") and that about 90 percent of Israel's electricity comes from coal and and natural gas; it's a brilliant product service system model. And for a country that's roughly the area of New Jersey, where distance between cities and towns are not great, it could -- and probably will -- work.

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A demonstration shows that swapping out an electric vehicle battery takes just a matter of minutes. Photo: Meaghan O'Neill
How Will Better Place's Battery Swapping Stations Work?
Say you want to take your Renault Fluence ZE on a road trip from Galilee to the Negev Desert, but you don't have a full charge on your battery. You could give it a few minutes of juice while you pack the car, but if you don't have six hours to spare at home or on the road, there's no need to fret. The Fluence has a 100-mile range, but if that's not enough to get drivers where they want to go, they will be able to pull into a battery changing station. With a few minutes prior notice -- just call into customer service from the car's computer -- drivers can pull into the station, drive onto a track much like those at a car wash, and -- voila -- an automated panel lifts into the underside of the car, removes one battery and replaces it with another. All in about three minutes. Though there are currently just six battery switch stations in Israel (for the test cars already on the road), the company plans to install 50 by the end of 2011.

Seriously, it's that Fast. See how an EV battery-changing station works.

The battery switch program was born out of Better Place's test program with a Tokyo taxi service -- where the taxis drive 24 hours day, and only the drivers get a break. The taxi corps loved the efficiency, clean emissions, and cost-savings of the car, but decommissioning part of the fleet for six hours of charge time was a deal breaker. Necessity being the mother of invention, the battery switch stations were born.

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Better Place HQ, Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo: Meaghan O'Neill
Will the Better Place Model Work?
In a small country like Israel, where distances between charging stations or battery swapping stations aren't far, the Better Place model has a pretty good chance of success. The company has also begun to roll out programs in Denmark, where distances are similar to those in Israel, and, interestingly, in Australia, where distances are far greater. The key is in creating corridors of access, say Agassi and Goodman, which could also apply to densely populated areas in the U.S. as well -- California and the Northeast, for example.

As for profitably, Agassi is confident. "The network cost $150-200 million [in Israel]," he said in a recent interview with NPR. "It has capacity to take 150,000 cars. We break even at 25,000." That's less than one percent of the population. At 10 percent -- which he hopes to hit within two years -- Better Place becomes a global success story. Better Place will certainly make an impact on how we think about designing cars and fueling them, but whether it's a world-changing concept remains to be seen. As Agassi's words of advice to potential consumers experiencing range anxiety points out, "You have to remember, most of us will still have a range extension mechanism called the other car."

More on Better Place, Electric Vehicles, and Shai Agassi
A Reader Responds to Project Better Place Getting Wired
Car Battery Charging Stations Coming to Hawaii and Your State
Better Place is Testing Battery-Swapping in Tokyo
Will Electric Car Charging Stations Be Standardized?
Israel Says Shalom to Electric Cars

Test-Driving the Better Place Electric Vehicle Experience (Plus: See Their Roadside Battery-Swap Station in Action)
Traffic crawled along the beltway outside Tel Aviv as the sun set in bright orange streaks behind the city. I sat with a group of journalists

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