Nadav in Better Place car_390.
(photo credit: Nadav Shemer)
Perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned from Better Place’s demise is the
supreme difficulty of revamping old industries and transforming deeply ingrained
Environmental consciousness goes only so far. The
desire to drive a car that emits no carbon and that can be run on electricity
produced from renewable sources such as solar or wind energy competes with a
wariness of the new and untried. Humans, apparently, have difficulty abandoning
old habits and embracing new modes of mobility.
This goes a long way
toward explaining why, nearly a year after setting up its infrastructure of
charging stations and marketing its Renault-produced electric sedans, Better
Place had managed to sell just 900 cars locally. The likelihood of a quick
transition from combustion engines to electric-powered cars looks no less
In the US, the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf and the
all-electric Ford Focus sold only a bit more than 30,000 cars in America in
2012. In comparison, about 150,000 Toyotas are sold in the US in a single
Obviously, as The Jerusalem Post
’s economic reporter Niv Elis
pointed out in his superb news analysis in Monday’s paper, there were other
reasons for Better Place’s business failure. But many of these factors, such as
the attempt by Better Place to stretch operations over a wide geographic area
from Australia and Denmark to Israel instead of focusing energies on a single
market are, in the end, connected to the basic underlying difficulty of
convincing people to adapt to a new way of private transportation.
focused on a single market and built up a network of recharging stations, Better
Place might have assuaged concerns that an electric car would not provide the
same freedom of movement as conventional vehicles.
The concept that
electric cars will one day replace conventional cars is far from delusional or
Ideas such as the Webvan, an online grocer, also overestimated
people’s willingness to ditch traditional modes of consumption – in this case
grocery shopping – in favor of the new and different.
Unlike the concept
of online grocery shopping, however, the need for electrically powered cars is
here to stay. Perhaps Better Place was before its time, perhaps its managers
failed to make a smooth transition from visionary to operative mode. But there
will come a time when electric cars will dominate our roads. Precisely what sort
of battery will power the cars – swappable like the one favored by Better Place
or non-swappable like the one preferred by Tesla Motors, or a combination of the
two – is still unclear. But once the technological glitches are solved, the
advantages of electric cars are so superior to a conventional vehicle that it is
only a matter of time before they dominate our roads.
And it might be
that places such as China and India that suffer from severe air pollution and
are highly dependent on fossil fuels will be the first places where electric
cars will be implemented on a large scale.
The Chinese government has
reportedly announced its intention of putting five million electric vehicles on
the road by the year 2020. And since China is the world’s biggest car market,
the successful implementation of this plan could have a critical impact on the
future of electric cars.
The tremendous hype accompanying Better Place’s
promising launching, which included the enthusiastic backing of President Shimon
Peres, contrasts sharply with the company’s bankruptcy proceedings in the Lod
District Court. But Better Place’s concept of roads packed with electric-powered
cars remains alive. We only hope that Better Place’s unfortunate failure does
not create a psychological barrier among investors and businessmen that
discourages them from carrying on the company’s important work.