Better Place, the company that proposes to revolutionize the global auto market with its electrically powered car and grid system, opened a state-of-the-art visitor center near Tel Aviv on Sunday.

In a press conference marking the occasion, the company’s founder and CEO, Shai Agassi, said that in the future the company’s logo will be as well known as the Macintosh apple or the Nike swish.

Situated in a renovated oil tank at the Pi Glilot fuel depot north of Tel Aviv, the visitor center invites the public to hear about the Better Place vision, learn how the system will work, and test drive the electric cars.

“With the Better Place project, for the first time, we in Israel are providing a solution for one of the biggest global problems,” said Agassi. “By a happy coincidence, the Israeli government announced today that it was calling for a national plan to reduce Israel’s dependence on fossil fuels. I promise you that we had nothing to do with it, but we are happy about it because it shows where we’re going.”

Agassi said that Better Place would be the biggest international brand to come out of Israel since Jaffa oranges.

Better Place Israel CEO Moshe Kaplinsky, a former deputy chief of the IDF General Staff, announced that the company had signed agreements with 92 Israeli companies that agreed to convert a portion of their fleets to electric vehicles once they become commercially available.

Among the companies that signed with Better Place are Motorola, Strauss and Netvision.

Also announced at the press conference was the signing of a strategic partnership agreement between Better Place and the Dor Alon gas station chain. Kaplinsky said Better Place’s battery replacement centers would be based at Dor Alon gas stations, which are spread out across the country.

“This is a first-of-its-kind agreement, and we expect that Dor Alon will be followed by other companies,” he said.

The center itself aims to enable prospective clients and members of the public to become acquainted with the company and its product. Its location in an old fuel tank is symbolic, said Dafna Agassi, the company’s sales and marketing manager.

“It shows our attitude about recycling and symbolizes the transition from the fossil fuel-based transportation of the past to the electric trend of the future,” she said.

While from the outside it looks like a big concrete drum, on the inside the visitor center is as futuristic as you can get. Dubbed by Agassi “the electric car Disneyland,” the center includes a specially designed auditorium, an interactive information center and a short driving course, where people can try out the vehicles.

Upon entering the center, guests are shown into a 30-seat auditorium. Every visitor is seated in a comfortable, couch-like chair that, it turns out, is made of a refurbished car seat. Each seat comes with a private screen.

After being seated, the light goes out and a promotional video is projected on a wall-sized screen opposite the seats. The film talks about the problems inherent in the existing automobile market based on fossil fuels and the solution that Better Place seeks to offer.

During the film, a hologram of Agassi explains the fine points. The private screens represent the dashboard of the cars, which allow users to access information about the battery and engine, navigate to the closest switching station and control the multimedia features of the vehicle.

Though not in use on the journalists’ preview tour, a revolving stage in the center of the auditorium hints that at a key moment of the film, an actual vehicle will be shown to the visitors.

Following the screening, visitors are invited to test-drive a car. Guests are paired up with Better Place employees and given the key to the electric vehicle waiting outside.

The cars themselves are modified Renault Lagunas and they were brought in from France, together with the French technicians, in time for the launch of the center. In the future the center will feature Renault’s Fluence ZE models, the first mass-produced electric cars.

The cars look like ordinary sedans and it is only when the visitor is asked to start the engine that the novelty becomes apparent.

“Insert the key, press on the brake pedal and push the button to start the car,” said the instructor. “There, the car is running.”

The only sound is that of the air conditioning unit switching on. Otherwise the car is silent. With electric cars, drivers will have to learn to rely on other senses to determine when the vehicle is operating.

The acceleration feels just like a regular car’s. On the 1.5-kilometer track, drivers can only accelerate to 80-90 kph. You can’t get the impression of what it’s like to drive at high speeds, but it definitely allows you to test the acceleration and deceleration of the car, and both are comfortable and smooth. On turns it also functions like a regular car and drivers can only just detect the vehicle’s low center of gravity.

Following the test drive, visitors once again enter the center and are ushered into a room that looks like the set of The Weakest Link TV show. Every guest gets a private touch-screen and an operator runs a program that presents the company’s infrastructure. Visitors can input information on the screen and see where the closest charging point will be and where the battery-switching stations are located.

So far Better Place has signed agreements with 17 local councils and municipalities to place charging posts. The company is assuming that there will always be an abundance of spots where car-owners can recharge their batteries.

Agassi said that 2010 would be the year Better Place proves itself.

“We are now putting together all the pieces of the puzzle,” he said.

In 2010 the charging grid will be tried out in Denmark and Israel and a practical trial on taxicabs in Tokyo will get under way.

Agassi said the company was waiting for other car manufacturers to join in its project.

“We are in ongoing negotiations with other manufacturers, but it takes a long time. The talks with Renault took a year, too. We will announce additional agreements when they take place,” he said.

The Israeli trial will begin in September with several hundred vehicles, he said. It will encompass five to 10 battery-switch stations and several thousand charging points across the country.

After a six-month trial period the cars will be available to the public. By that time there should be around 100 switch stations and Agassi expects to deploy roughly 1,000 cars a month.

Agassi said the company was committed to providing a vehicle that would be cheaper than the equivalent gasoline-powered car.

“Keeping it running will cost the same or less than running a car on gasoline. I can’t tell exactly because it depends on the price of fuel, which as you know fluctuates widely,” he said. The company has yet to publish the proposed price of the electric vehicle.

When asked whether there would be additional models of electric cars like minivans or sports cars, Agassi said that Renault was currently working on nine models of electric vehicles and that every market segment would be represented by an electric alternative.

He also said that because of the international standards that Better Place follows, additional companies, assuming they choose to, would be able to use the Better Place grid for service and charging.

The visitors’ center will be open to the public starting on February 14. Groups of up to 25 people can schedule a tour and individual visitors can call ahead to book a tour and test drive.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger