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.