Better Place’s vision lives on

The concept that electric cars will one day replace conventional cars is far from delusional or fleeting.

Nadav in Better Place car_390 (photo credit: Nadav Shemer)
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 consumer behavior.
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 dubious elsewhere.
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 month.
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.
Had it 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 fleeting.
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.