Electric car debuts in Tel Aviv

Start-up Project Better Place aims to revolutionize transportation in Israel.

electric car 88 248 (photo credit: )
electric car 88 248
(photo credit: )
Israelis got a first demonstration Sunday of the electric car that developers hope will revolutionize transportation in the country and serve as a pilot for the rest of the world. The silver car doing circles in a Tel Aviv parking lot looked like a regular sedan - except it had no exhaust pipe and there was an electric socket where the mouth of the gas tank should have been. The Silicon Valley start-up Project Better Place hopes the fully electric prototype will be on Israel's streets in large numbers beginning at the end of 2010. Backers of the project say the car will drastically reduce dependence on oil, cut emissions and put Israel at the forefront of international efforts to develop more environmentally friendly modes of transportation. The Israeli government endorsed the project in January, and a Danish energy company also has joined as a partner. But experts say technical pitfalls, such as a limited battery range, remain before the car will be marketable. Other car manufacturers are gambling on gas-electric hybrids as the green cars of the immediate future. If the company's plan proceeds on schedule, Israel will be the first country to have electric cars on its highways in large numbers. On the dashboard of the Renault sedan presented Sunday, the gas gauge was replaced by a screen showing how much battery power remained. In a test drive, the car accelerated quickly - the company says it can go from zero to 100 kilometers per hour in eight seconds - and the engine remained nearly inaudible even at high speed. The project is a joint venture between automotive giant Renault-Nissan, which is building the car, and Project Better Place, which came up with the business model and is supposed to operate a recharging grid to be built across Israel beginning in 2009. The company plans to have 500,000 recharging stations all across the country. In the next several weeks, the company will start experimenting with deploying recharging stations. Several hundred cars are scheduled to hit Israel's streets in a pilot run next year, the company says, with larger numbers to arrive in late 2010. The initiative is being led by Shai Agassi, an Israeli-American entrepreneur and hi-tech wunderkind who raised $200 million to get the project off the ground just eight months ago. He also got the Israeli government to endorse it earlier this year and promise tax incentives to promote the new vehicles when they go on the market. At the time, experts said there were still plenty of technical pitfalls that needed to be surmounted before the car became available to the general public. Critics have pointed at the car battery's limited range - 170 kilometers - as a potentially major deterrent to consumers. However, a survey commissioned by Project Better Place and released Sunday showed great interest and willingness to adapt among the 1,000 Israeli consumers polled. Sixty-four percent viewed an electric car favorably. More tellingly, just 20% of those polled said it would be hard or very hard to adapt to driving an electric car. In more potentially good news for the company, 81% of those surveyed by the Geocartography Knowledge Group in February said if they bought an electric car it would be to replace their main internal combustion household vehicle. However, only 210,000 of 1.2 million would consider purchasing an electric car. On the other hand, 210,000 could be considered a good start for a fledgling project. For long drives, motorists will be able to replace the battery at about 150 swap stations expected to be built around the country. The battery swap is expected to take the same amount of time as filling a tank of gas. For shorter journeys, drivers will be able to recharge the batteries at home or at the office. The survey indicated that Israelis' driving habits would require little to no alteration of behavior because their work commute was relatively short and the amount of time the car was parked at work or at home was more than enough to charge the battery fully. Drivers will pay a monthly subscription for the batteries, with different plans like those of cellphone users. The company says the rates will come to less than the average monthly expenditure on gasoline. Following Israel's lead, the Danish energy company DONG Energy AS adopted the Better Place model in March with a plan to have thousands of cars running on electricity generated by wind turbines by 2011. If the company's plans remain on schedule, Israeli consumers will be able to purchase an electric car by the end of 2010 for about the price of a regular sedan.