Eight years ago I reluctantly turned in my electric car, the Think. Ford had
abruptly cut short by six months the 30-month lease of this 100-percent electric
vehicle, collecting them for shipment back to Norway where they were
manufactured. My two-year adventure with a potentially viable option for future
automobiles, an alternative that would help lower dependence on oil from hostile
countries and contribute to bettering the environment, came to a sudden
It was a huge disappointment for the dozens of Think drivers in New
York City suburbs. The small, energy-efficient car was totally
I drove the Think daily to the commuter train, to
supermarkets, to movie theaters, and even to take my daughter to school.
Chargers were available at the train station and one was installed in my
The 40-mile range on a fully charged battery was fine, though I
expected that further research would develop a more potent battery. Or,
someone would invest in chargers outside theaters, supermarkets and shopping
malls to help extend the battery life.
Unsurprisingly, my Think attracted
many questions. Even today, neighbors ask what ever happened to the little
A FEW years after I returned my Think, auto firms began to
work on reviving the concept in the US, but with little success. Tesla made
vehicles costing over $100,000, filling a narrow niche market. GM has struggled
with the Volt since it was first introduced. The original electric car design,
never produced, was abandoned in favor of the plug-in hybrid that switches to
gas after reaching a certain distance.
But ideas for innovative
technology rarely die. Shai Agassi, an Israeli entrepreneur, concluded that an
electric car could only be marketed successfully if there was a support network
in place first. Agassi’s key idea is to provide facilities where a car owner can
stop to quickly swap out the used battery and replace it with a fully charged
I first met Agassi when he addressed AJC’s 2008 Annual Meeting, in
Washington, DC. It was about a year after he launched a company called Better
Place, and nearly four years after Ford had killed the Think. What Agassi
described was a technological revolution that made sense. If it could establish
roots and grow in the US, I wanted to join.
Better Place took several
years to identify corporate partners that could perfect the
Renault is building the car, a different French company the
batteries, and German and Swiss companies have developed the battery switching
Today, Better Place has erected 23 out of 40 planned battery
switching stations across Israel, though “we learned that we only need about 20
to do a lap around Israel,” says Joe Paluska, Better Place vice president of
global communications and policy. The battery lasts for about 100
Renault has delivered 300 cars to Israel and 200 to Denmark, where
seven out of a planned 18 battery switching stations are in
“Better Place is now officially open for business, and has started
advertising campaigns in both markets,” Paluska told me. Australia is a third
county where Better Place is active. Evan Thornley, head of Better Place
Australia, was named CEO this month, replacing Agassi, who remains on the board
of the company he founded five years ago.
Curious why Better Place might
succeed in certain countries and perhaps not in others, such as the US, I asked
Paluska about the criteria for a country to participate in the
Key elements are the price of gas, government policy to promote
electric vehicles, and access to capital. Those principles exist in Israel, some
European countries, and, Paluska says, in China, which has been developing its
own electric car and the batteries to power it.
“The US doesn’t take it
as seriously as do China and Europe,” said Paluska.
Indeed, GM recently
suspended production of the Volt due to a shortage of buyers. Nissan has so far
sold only 500 of the all-electric Leaf, but has not marketed it aggressively.
The $99 deposit I put down two years ago to be one of the first Leaf customers
was suddenly returned a few months ago without any effort to sell me the
American consumers and, importantly, the automotive giants prefer
the gas-powered vehicles. Though American drivers love to complain about
the price of gas, it still is priced and taxed much lower than in other
The ABCs of the Better Place approach are autos, batteries and
infrastructure. The US lacks the infrastructure that Agassi’s vision offers.
Short of making aliya in order to own and drive a viable electric car, I’ll
relish memories of the Think and wait patiently for the right electric car
solution to return to New York.
The writer if the American Jewish
Committee’s director of media relations.