On My Mind: Electric cars

American consumers and, importantly, the automotive giants prefer the gas-powered vehicles.

A 2012 Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Rebecca Cook)
A 2012 Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Rebecca Cook)
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 halt.
It was a huge disappointment for the dozens of Think drivers in New York City suburbs. The small, energy-efficient car was totally functional.
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 garage.
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 electric car.
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 one.
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 technology.
Renault is building the car, a different French company the batteries, and German and Swiss companies have developed the battery switching stations.
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 miles.
Renault has delivered 300 cars to Israel and 200 to Denmark, where seven out of a planned 18 battery switching stations are in place.
“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 program.
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 car.
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 countries.
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.