Editor's Notes: On the road to a Better Place

Welcome to the quieter, healthier motoring of tomorrow.

better place taxis 311 (photo credit: Better Place)
better place taxis 311
(photo credit: Better Place)
I have seen the future. Or rather I’ve driven it.
It’s quick, smooth and, most strikingly, almost silent. And its environmental importance could hardly be more relevant in a week where our vulnerability to global warming was fatally underlined by the Carmel inferno.
At Pi Glilot, north of Tel Aviv – formerly the nation’s key hub, ironically, of fossil fuel distribution – Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi’s Better Place offers test drives around a short circuit in the Renault Fluence ZE. ZE, of course, stands for zero emission.
The car runs solely on an electric battery. You press an ignition button and you need to double-check that it has come to life.
There’s no roar of an engine. No throb. You lift your foot off the brake pedal and glide forward in serene, quiet glory. You reach the same speeds with what feels like similar acceleration to the gas-guzzling norms. You expend next to no power when idling – as in traffic jams or at traffic lights.
It looks like a car. It moves like a car. It sounds like an air conditioner.
BY THIS time next year, visitors to the demonstration center are now being told, we’ll all be able to drive cars like this. To keep them powered-up, Better Place is moving to install a network of battery charging and battery replacement centers nationwide.
The limitations of electric cars are well-known. Growing up in England, we used to have our milk delivered each morning by a chirpy, peak-capped fellow riding an electric cart. He’d set out fully charged from the local dairy, but his route had to be kept pretty short, or he’d run out of power and curdle.
Better Place has settled on a lithium-ion battery that will take you 160 kilometers – not bad in a tiny country whose main urban centers, Eilat apart, fall within the range of a single, fully charged battery. The overwhelming majority of journeys, the hops around town, are far shorter.
Most of the time, in the Better Place vision, we’ll do our recharging at home, at work, in parking lots and at other “charging spots,” via squat, triangular- shaped, plug-in charging posts, topping up as necessary.
On those longer journeys, we’ll pull in at one of the replacement centers in much the same way as we pull in at gas stations today. It’ll take three to five minutes for the slick battery- switch procedure. And then we’ll be on our silent way again, just without putting more cash into the pockets of unsavory oil barons and without wreaking further havoc on our fragile planet.
The battery switch system is on display at the Pi Glilot center as well. It’s an impressive, nohands operation: A robot mechanism slides under the car, unscrews, lowers and removes the old battery, lifts and screws in the new. The batteries weigh about 250 kilos, and the task of speedily replacing them had apparently defeated numerous international experts. Agassi got his solution via the Israel Air Force, adapting the technologies that are used to lift out and lift in missiles on fighter planes.
IN A perfect world, the electric car would run on power generated with minimal damage to the environment. And perhaps one day we’ll have solar panels on the roofs of our vehicles, or, who knows, find a way to help power them by harnessing the energy created by their very motion.
For now, in our less than perfect world, and in a country only beginning to explore the potential of solar and other clean energy sources, Better Place pronounces itself committed to the encouragement of alternative energy generation down the road and extols the environmental benefits it is offering today.
First, there is the switch away from oil in the tank to coal- and gas-generated electricity in the battery. Then there is the recharging strategy that is designed to minimize additional strains on the national electricity grid. The aim, wherever possible, will be to encourage, via a savvy pricing structure, recharging in off-peak periods, notably overnight.
And finally there is the fact that the zero-emission cars will keep not only noise pollution but also, crucially, air pollution out of our population centers, so blighted by carbon monoxide emissions, with all the attendant climate change and personal health benefits.
NOT EVERYTHING has gone Better Place’s way since I spoke to the company’s chairman Idan Ofer for an article in this column two years ago.
He noted at the time that America spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year on imported oil, and correctly assessed that the incentive to shift away from those kinds of numbers was overwhelming, given the economic crisis, the environmental imperatives and the unsavory regimes this spending supports.
But Better Place was hoping for a more central role in an anticipated Barack Obama-led electric car revolution. The US administration has allocated several billion dollars to encourage its car-making giants to move away from yesterday’s technology and to begin the transition to electric charging stations.
There has been some criticism of Better Place’s dominant role in Israel – including the suggestion, firmly denied by the company, that it has maneuvered toward a monopoly. Its business model, whereby it inserts itself as a middleman, a “commercial sub-supplier,” between the electric car purchaser and the national grid, has also been disparaged as working to the consumer’s detriment.
The world’s major car manufacturers, Globes analyst Dudi Ben-Gedalyahu wrote recently, “are designing vehicles for unrestricted charging on the national electricity grid. In this way, they will be able to sell electric cars the same way they sell regular cars: fire and forget.
“Most Western countries support this approach and even encourage it on environmental grounds. If the state believes the electric vehicle is indeed clean and green, as its supporters claim, then it is in the state’s interest or in the interest of municipal authorities to boost its use at the expense of the polluting alternatives,” he added.
“Therefore, large cities such as London, Berlin and San Francisco are currently setting up public charging stations with subsidized charging prices, or at least with regular prices.”
If so, however, they are a long way behind Better Place-prodded Israel. And Better Place officials note that, as things stand, our inadequate local electricity grid – which frequently comes close to breaking point as the nation’s air conditioners battle through our hotter, longer summers – might face total collapse under the strain of unregulated, nationwide, direct electric car plug-ins.
Furthermore, as the relevant technologies become more widespread and perfected, the firm knows it will have to compete in an ever-more crowded, extremely competitive field.
Overall, Better Place, which was only founded by Agassi in 2007, has plainly made extraordinary headway, raising over $750 million, winning an Israeli government endorsement in 2008, signing contracts on electric cars with more than two dozen countries, and focusing now on operations here, in Denmark, Australia, Japan (where it has been running a pilot study with electric taxis) and North America.
The reasonable expectation is that, as the efficiency of zeroemission motoring proves itself, governments worldwide will clamor to get behind the wheel, boosted by public demand.
It’s not clear yet whether Israel or Denmark will win the race to go electric on a viable national scale, but Better Place indicates that the process should be well under way in both countries just a year from now.
Pricing – of the cars themselves, and of the various packages Better Place will offer to drivers who join its network – has yet to be finalized. But the company stresses that costs will be competitive. All kinds of regulatory processes are now unfolding, and it’s reasonable to assume that Israeli bureaucracy – including the particular pleasures of working with the Israel Electric Corporation – will yet place a few obstacles on the road to a Better Place.
But if Ofer, in December 2008, encouraged me to “Imagine the Israel of 2011 is flooded with electric cars,” he may prove not to be too many months off.
THE FINAL, optional stop at the Pi Glilot visitors’ center is at what amounts to an impeccably green incarnation of the car dealer’s sales office. A smiling employee, in gleaming, crisp white shirt, sits with you at a computer screen, takes down your name and phone number, asks you what car you drive now, where you park it, how much you drive in a year, and whether you’d be interested in switching to a zero-emission alternative.
Some time next year, they’ll likely be calling to ask that last gentle, theoretical question for real.