Better Place

back to welcome page

When: Sunday afternoon, 1:00 pm
Where: Right outside Tel Aviv. Better Place’s welcome center is located inside an old, unused, and cleaned out national oil reserve tank. The pleasant irony is that they are re-using the inside of the old oil tank to move the country away from oil.
WWW: (Drive Switch Go: shows the car and the switching station) (Technion visits Better Place)
Who: Scott Mortman and Yariv Nornberg

In 2005 Shai Agassi attended the Davos convention. The participants were asked to speak about how to make the world a better place by 2020. Most executives spoke about expanding or updating their company’s products. Shai suggested removing an entire country from their dependence on oil for transportation. He outlined a plan for affordable, manageable and practical electric cars to replace gas guzzlers. Shimon Peres liked what he heard so much that he discouraged Shai from accepting a vice president position with German company SAP and persuaded him to start his own company to get right to work on his idea.

Electric vehicles were around in the 1890s and early 1900s but they gave way to the internal combustion engine which has dominated for the last 100 years. One of my professors at Pace several semesters ago distributed an article blaming some sort of conspiracy for doing away with the electric vehicle back in the early 1900s. (I’m at an internet cafe in Tel Aviv now so I don’t have access to my files but if i find it when i get home i’ll try to update this post.)

Lately, they have made a (very) small comeback. As the introductory video we watched in Better Place’s amphitheater, outfitted with chairs (and cup holders!) salvaged from cars of different makes and models, pointed out, the current half-answer to getting rid of oil addiction is hybrid cars; but hybrid cars can, by definition, never rid us of oil addiction. It does use a percentage less than average gas guzzlers, but Better Place is looking for a solution… not a band-aid.

Modern technology has gotten us to the point of responding to the naysayers who demand POWER!!! from their vehicles and recite a memorized soliloquy about the inferiority of electricity to the ever-capable, powerful and manly GAS. People are willing to accept and brag about advances in cell phones, tablet computers, app shopping habits, internet search algorithms, biotech and car dashboards; but somehow, the prevailing perception is that a car’s hood acts as a shield, protecting it from the elements and innovation. (Perhaps people are aware of how much they don’t understand about internal combustion engines, transmissions, fuel pumps, intake manifolds, etc. and leave “car thinking” to the realm of mechanics who stereo-typically are not tech-savvy hipsters.)

The technology is there for an electric battery to compete with an internal combustion engine on all the relevant factors. The car that I test-drove at Better Place’s “race track” was quieter much quieter than its gas counterpart and was incredibly smooth. The internal design is of a completely different structure leading to fewer moving parts (no pistons, valves, and intakes of air, gas and sparks in the engine; no transmission (there are no gears, just “go”); no exhaust system) and fewer visits to the mechanic.

So what are the holdups?

  1. The high cost of the battery.
  2. The need to conveniently (i.e., quickly) re-charge the battery.

As chronicled in Start-Up Nation (Dan Senor & Saul Singer), Shai Agassi compares purchasing an electric vehicle with the battery to purchasing a gas car with enough gas to last 5 years! Better Place’s model is a revolutionary 2-step approach:

  1. Sell just the car, lease the battery and charge (money) for charge (electricity) based on miles driven; similar to the way a cell phone company practically gives away their phones and charges a usage fee. (Or fees if you use Verizon!)
  2. Create an infrastructure to make charging as simple as re-filling the gas tank. This is achieved through 3 methods:
    1. Simple to use and theft-proof charge spots, owned and serviced by Better Place,  at the customer’s home and office.
    2. A network of Better Place owned charge spots at malls and other popular locations.
    3. A comprehensive network of battery swap stations where customers can drive in and have their depleted battery swapped for a freshly charged one in an automated fashion that does not require them to get out of the car (combination of full service gas station and car wash that you get to sit in the car!) and takes less time than pumping a tank of gas.

Israel’s economic island, isolated from its neighbors, makes it the perfect test country for a pilot program. The required size of the infrastructure needed before a roll-out is feasible is minimal. Pretesting has been going on for a few months and this month the company will officially begin selling electric cars with subscriptions to Better Place. While at the welcome center we noticed couples, sabras, and army buddies coming in to inquire about purchasing their own Better Place car.

One of my fellow students asked if the government was doing anything to promote adoption of electric cars. Yariv briefly explained the tax benefits: 76% sales tax on cars; 10% sales tax on electric cars! Better Place is planning on deploying its fleet in Denmark next. Denmark’s sales tax on cars is over 100% (gasp) whereas its sales tax on electric cars is 0%!

Professor Bachenheimer sparked a brief discussion about plug standardization and compatibility. There are currently two standard plug models: a French-Italian style and a German-Japanese style. If the industry doesn’t settle on one standard within the next two years, the European Commission will purportedly force a choice. I’d like to see that happen effectively!

Before leaving for Israel, I was most looking forward to the Better Place visit, and I was not disappointed. From our van driver mistakenly driving through the rows of brand-new electric cars inside the gated parking lot that we mistakenly got inside of, while several Better Place workers tried to chase us down on foot and waved frantically from outside the gate to try to get us out of the narrow parking lot, to the fancy amphitheater, our tour guide from Professor Kessler’s New Jersey, the up-close look at a cut-out of an electric engine, and the cool experience of driving such a smooth and quiet car, Better Place was one of the highlights of my trip.


Better Place’s amphitheaterThe insides of the car (photo credits: Prossefor)

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One Response to Better Place

  1. Eli says:

    President Obama, following in Pace University’s footsteps, visited Better Place on his Israel trip in March.

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