By on February 9, 2010

Optimism and food were the two abundant commodities at Better Place’s press conference yesterday morning, announcing the company’s first Visitor Center, established – how ironically – inside what used to be an oil tank in Pi Glilot, a former gas depot. It seems that the entire event and the resounding optimism around it were eclipsed by HSBC’s recent $350 million investment in the company.

Better Place’s new visitor center is the company’s first ever direct appeal to customers in marketing the car. Rather than educate visitors about the company, the center seems focuses on educating the public on the idea of electric cars themselves. Movies, interactive displays and galleries are all included – but so is a ‘live’ demonstration: genuine electric cars powered by Better Place’s solution that users can test drive themselves on a short course.

Perhaps one of the boldest messages the company tried to convey during the press conference was branding. The thousands of logos spread across the visitor center betray CEO Shai Agassi’s goal of making Better Place’s ‘switch’ symbol as recognizable as Apple’s logo within “three to four years.” Agassi said that Renault’s investment in a ‘ground breaking’ project such as Better Place is reminiscent of the step that Apple has taken with the iPod and iPhone.

Symbolically, the establishment of the visitor center also brings the company to committing to a schedule. The initial real-world Israeli pilot rollout of the Renault Fluence Z.E sedan, featuring a few hundred cars given out mainly to leasing customers, will take place around September this year, says Agassi. Series production of the Fluence in Renault’s Turkish factory will begin halfway through 2011, with the first ‘regular’ cars destined to arrive on Israeli roads in the end of 2011.

Critically, Agassi refused to reveal the electric Fluence’s local pricing, but previous reports and speculations place the showroom price at around 85,000 NIS, about $23,000 and more than $9,000 cheaper than Israel’s bestselling car, the Mazda3. Being a showroom price tag, it doesn’t include the battery, which will be subsidized by Better Place and paid for on a monthly basis with payments depending on range travelled.

The press conference also gave interesting insight into Better Place’s intentions regarding the battery switching stations and the related infrastructure, something that company officials weren’t too keen to discuss previously. The battery switching stations will theoretically provide Better Place’s vehicles unlimited range, with a freshly charged battery replacing an incoming car’s used battery, but it’s not clear if Better Place will modify the Fluence Z.E sedan – which has batteries mounted in the trunk – to suit its battery swapping model.

Kaplinsky revealed that the company has signed a surprising agreement with Israeli gas station operator Dor Alon to deploy battery switching spots in its stations, while hinting at similar agreements to be signed with additional partners in the near future. 5 to 10 battery replacement stations are scheduled to be installed in Israel for 2010, and until the end of 2011 the company guarantees 100 battery swap spots – most of which will be installed in partnering gas stations.

Kaplinsky spoke of the 92 ‘Better Place Vision Partners’, including newly-joined Motorola, Computer Associates, Strauss and Israeli ISP Netvision. In total, these companies account for a fleet spanning 45,000 vehicles – more than a third of Israeli car sales in 2009. Numbers weren’t provided, but Better Place Israel’s CEO said that a ‘portion’ of the fleet will be dedicated to electric vehicles utilizing the company’s solution. He also presented a list of 17 municipalities cooperating with Better Place – likely in setting up charging stations – amongst of which are Jerusalem and Haifa.

The company introduced a new pilot in Tokyo, where 4 Better Place taxis (likely converted Nissan Rogues) will operate over the course of the next year, each travelling a distance of about 18,500 miles. Agassi says the pilot will help prove the long-term viability of Better Place’s batteries and swap stations.

Better Place’s execs also spoke of the company’s plans for the future. Idan Ofer, Chairman of the Board, mentioned that the company is in contact with Chinese automaker Chery to produce battery-replaceable EVs. During the Q&A session, Agassi stated that the company is in talks with ‘many different automakers’ regarding the utilization of its solution in more vehicles, and explained that the recent financial crisis slowed down the negotiations. He also said that Renault is developing nine different electric vehicles for different segments and tastes, and while refusing to elaborate, hinted at an upcoming sports car: ‘not all of those cars will force you to be green’, he stated.

Discussing the battery range issue, Agassi spoke of a total range of 620,000 miles before a battery is required to be replaced, and of three ‘range cycles’ that would decrease travel range per charge during use. To us, that sounds like sugar coating a battery’s natural tendency to decrease its capacity over time, as well as a rather optimistic battery life span.

The issue of standardization also appeared during the session, with Agassi declaring that Better Place will cooperate with competing companies providing similar service. He even went as far as claiming that such companies are beneficial for the project.

The ambitious center and newly-found willingness to share numbers may bring Better Place one iota closer to their dream of a network of electric vehicles, but the fundamental questions around the viability of the project are still afloat.

One shadowed area is how much range is affected by one’s driving habits and requirements; another is the issue of battery fatigue – which wasn’t fully addressed during the event. We will be exploring these issues during the Better Place Birthwatch series, but meanwhile, we’ll close with an interesting fact: while the fleet of electric Renaults caught sun outside, Mr. Ofer, who is renowned for owning a Tesla Roadster, parked his other car, an Audi RS6, at the curb. Sheer hypocrisy or subtle taste in cynical jokes? You decide.

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14 Comments on “Project Better Place Birthwatch: Visiting Hours...”


  • avatar

    I thought the Nissan Leaf was going to be their flagship.
    It appears that that car is going to be much more expensive
    than earlier promised. Certainly the world would be a Better
    Place if auto makers realized how hideous,offensive, tasteless,
    and pretentious it is have have loads of graphics flanking
    their vehicles boasting how many cylinders, how green, or how
    macho the car is.

    I will say it again. When electric car makers stop bragging about
    acceleration and lying about(or at least exaggerating) range, battery life, and range-affected issues (such as use of heater, AC, use in cold temperatures), then and then only will they earn
    the trust and respect needed to sell in meaningful numbers.

    Quit worrying about 0-60 and start working on range. They are inversely related, in case you have not discovered that unfortunate
    fact.

    Can you respond to this poor schmuck, Mr. Agassi?

    • 0 avatar
      charly

      $23000 doesn’t sound expensive when you compare it with a $32000 Mazda3.

      “Quit worrying about 0-60 and start working on range. They are inversely related, in case you have not discovered that unfortunate”

      They are inversely related in ICE cars. Not in electric cars. Fast acceleration means a more efficient electric car which leads to more range.

  • avatar

    And whilst your are at it, stop it with your bullshit
    Zero Emisions claim, even if it is explained to be tailpiple
    only if you read all the fine print. People are not as stupid
    as you think. All carmakers need CREDIBILITY, now.

    The Prius was so entrenched because it was so wellbuilt, gaspedal withstanding. Hopefully you can execute a design
    as well as the Toyota by Nissan or Renault.

    I hate hybrids. good luck with the all-electric.

    • 0 avatar
      Tal Bronfer

      You raise some valid points (not sure about the tone – Shai Agassi didn’t write this article, you know), but you must remember that Better Place doesn’t make the car or the batteries. It bonds them together through an infrastructure, so whatever quality issues there might be probably relate to the original car, at this stage produced by Renault.

      Secondly, the Nissan Leaf is a Renault-Nissan project, independent of Better Place. The Leaf will not have battery swap compatibility, and the company hasn’t said anything about marketing it via Better Place’s solution.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    1. It’s amusing that the pilot programs will be launched on a crowded island and a country that’s surrounded by places that you can’t really road-trip too. That’s different than, say, the U.S., Canada or Europe.

    2. One of those places for the pilot program is mostly warm. Tokyo’s climate seems pretty mild for winter, as well. That should be GREAT for battery life. That’s different than, say, the northern half of the United States. Canada. Or Europe, where cold weather is a battery’s worst enemy.

    3. Uh, where’s the electricity supposed to come from again? Magic butterflies? Rainbow colored ponies? Unicorns?

    • 0 avatar
      Tal Bronfer

      1. Amusing? Not really – these countries were chosen because of it. It’s imminent that Better Place still has to provide answers for American consumers.

      2. Actually, I’m not sure that the Israeli climate is the perfect environment for EVs. The blame lies in air conditioning, which we take for granted in a gas-powered vehicle. I’ll discuss just how much impact air conditioning is said to have on EVs in the next article in this series.

      3. Indeed, Israeli powerplants mostly utilize coal. On the other hand, the other country that’s going to participate in the project, Denmark, does have a pretty solid wind-powered power grid.

    • 0 avatar
      charly

      1. Hawaii would be the natural testing ground for the American market. Israel and Denmark are so small that the country is filled with 100 battery swapping station so you only need a few 100 million to completely cover the country. In the US you need much more so the initial phase is much more expensive, especially considering that success isn’t certain.

  • avatar

    Well, I hope they can do it, although I don’t want to be part of it. What’s interesting about efforts to commercialize EVs is that they offer the consumer LESS than current ICE technology, while offering society a couple of big advantages (less dependence on dictatorships for oil, and–if you believe it’s happening–greenhouse mitigation. And BP has an elaborate scheme to try to mitigate the reduction in the consumer’s utility. And everyone hopes batteries will eventually become as versatile as the magic liquid, and powered by renewables (I expect the latter to happen, but I’m not so sanguine about the former).

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Very interesting stuff Tal, thank you!

    I find the Tokyo taxi pilot intriguing. The Japanese take the topic of zero emissions very seriously, so I can imagine why they would be enthusiastic about this. (Yes, “zero emission” means local; that’s obvious to any grownup, and I find it slightly tiresome and pedantic when this point is pushed every time an article about EVs is published at TTAC.)
    On the other hand, taxis in Tokyo need air conditioning for about five months a year so I foresee very frequent trips to the BP battery changing station.

    If I was in charge, I’d in contrast recommend installing cable or induction chargers at taxi stands in those cities like Paris and Berlin where cabs spend much time waiting. You’d run your aircon while charging your batteries from the mains, and you wouldn’t need frequent detours to BP, with all the inherent logistical problems. (How to keep enough loaded batteries in stock? How to minimize the waiting time?)

  • avatar

    - Charly- “They are inversely related in ICE cars. Not in electric cars. Fast acceleration means a more efficient electric car which leads to more range.”

    Yeah, right, that’s how it works. The harder you accelerate, the further you go.

    Where do you work? I’d like to get a job there.

    • 0 avatar
      Martin Schwoerer

      mor2bz: wrong!
      Charly isn’t talking about driving habits. He’s talking about the accelerative *ability* of a car. The Tesla is lightweight and has plenty of power and a relatively long range. Its range wouldn’t be longer if it had less power. Sure, if you use the power all the time in a wasteful manner, you lose range. But his proposition is correct.

  • avatar

    Martin:

    I am fully aware of people’s propensity to use what power is
    available in a car, be is ICE or electric. Tesla CEO was always
    asking a prospective customer to adjust the radio. As the
    passenger reached for the radio, the driver would floor the accelerator, and the resulting g force would make it impossible for the passenger to reach forward. Range does not have to decrease with
    a bigger motor, but given how people are going to drive a “hot”
    car, that’s how it is going to work out.

    Your comments aobut weight (and I will add aerodynamics) are duly
    noted. But putting a bigger motor in then what is needed (Tesla)
    with a higher amp draw is not going to enhance range. There is
    only a finite amount of power in the battery.

    I apologize for my bad tone, but I stand on my remarks.

  • avatar
    blowfish

    Coal fired Gen plant, so the emission just went elsewhere.

    Are Coal fired gen emits less pollution than most cars as Gram per grams?

    I can see it can get ahead of the game if it were Hydro or wind mill generated power to run these all EVs.

    • 0 avatar
      nonce

      It’s not just the emissions. It allows them to not use oil, which lowers the overall price, which means that countries like Iran have less dollars to buy suicide bombers against Israel.

      Israel alone shifting away from oil and towards coal/nuclear/hydro/wind won’t break the price of oil, but if it can help that happen, it increases the lifespan of its citizens.


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