As Bertel pointed out earlier today, peak oil is here: the graph above is not from some fly-by-night EV firm, but Toyota, an auto industry giant. What years of environmental and security arguments failed to communicate, economics is now explaining with little difficulty. Namely, that demand for oil is growing faster than supply, forcing developed economies to look beyond oil for future growth. And, as you might expect from a conservative player in a conservative industry, Toyota argues that the solution to this growing disconnect is a portfolio of drivetrain technologies. But what if, instead of trying to adapt an existing business model to the new oil reality, you built a new business model from the ground up? That’s exactly what Project Better Place is trying to do, and the contrast between its approach and that of Toyota is fascinating to anyone interested in the future of the automobile.
Of all the persistent questions faced by the auto industry in these tumultuous times, perhaps the most pressing is: how many consumers would actually consider buying an electric car? There’s no single answer to this question, but we do have one new perspective on it today, courtesy of a study by Deloitte [PDF] which analyzed potential EV demand around the world through some 13,000 survey respondents. The major takeaway?
The reality is that when consumers actual expectations for range, charge time, and purchase price (in every country around the world included in this study) are compared to the actual market offerings available today, no more than 2 to 4 percent of the population in any country would have their expectations met today based on a data analysis of all 13,000 individual responses to the survey.
That assessment is well in line with other studies we’ve seen, most of which estimate global EV demand at somewhere between one and five percent of the market. But because potential EV demand has a lot of moving parts, from government regulations to the state of EV technology, there’s more to the study than that conclusion alone…
TTAC’s Twitter followers already know that I’m at the 2011 APEC Transport/Energy Ministerial Meeting in San Francisco, rubbing elbows with key decision-makers from the world of energy and transportation across the Asia-Pacific region. Earlier today I had the opportunity to sit down with Better Place CEO Shai Agassi, the intense, formidable CEO of Project Better Place. I’ll be writing about that conversation shortly, but many of the major points are covered in the speech Agassi gave shortly afterwards to assembled ministers, media and businesspeople. The speech boils down Better Place’s hugely ambitious plan to tackle one of the most complex challenges the world faces: transportation’s dependence on oil. If you’re looking for an Al Gore-style “green” speech, keep looking. Agassi tackles the problem from an economic and technological approach, and he makes a case that is well worth about 17 minutes of your time.
If you’re not familiar with Better Place, you can read some of TTAC’s coverage of the battery-swapping, network-managing, mileage-leasing project at our Project Better Place tag here (much of it on-the-ground reporting from Tal Bronfer, who has been following its rollout in the Israeli market). A comparison of battery swap to other EV business models can be found here, and a study of EV grid management issues can be found here.
One of the biggest clouds hovering over Better Place’s venture in Israel – and globally – is what stands behind the well-prepared presentations and thoroughly thought out, customer-oriented marketing. What makes the seemingly adventurous venture appealing to the business hounds investing their best capital in it? Such questions from journalists are usually answered with a neat smile, a corporate joke and a dry statement.
While Better Place still isn’t revealing its global business plan, it finally sheds some light on the numbers behind its Israeli venture, as part of a worldwide roadshow in preparation for the company’s upcoming $300 million capital raising.
In the last time we heard from Better Place – a little less than two months ago – we’ve witnessed the unfolding of the company’s first functional battery swap station. And yet we were left with one big question mark hovering over the entire project: the price for the end customer.
This question is particularly crucial for the Israeli market, where the vast majority of people owns a car and uses it for their daily commutes and where gas prices are amongst the highest in the world – about $8.3 per gallon. And while the company has already unveiled its prices for the Danish market, it hasn’t revealed the price of the car and monthly subscription for the Israeli market – until now.
When Better Place launched their Visitor Center in Tel Aviv, the attending journalists’ fingers couldn’t keep up with all the numbers and the promises flogged by the company chiefs: tens of battery switch stations to be built, hundreds of charging stations to be deployed and a thousand cars to be sold to Israeli customers each month.
Just over a year has passed since these statements made air, and in typical Israeli fashion – most of the goals were not met. Despite promising to begin delivery of cars in the beginning of 2011, Better Place has not sold a single car over the four months that passed since New Year’s Eve. And the number of battery switch stations built in Israel was – you guessed it – exactly zero. Until now.
Charging stations are okay, really. Battery swapping stations are even better, and I honestly have nothing against Lithium-ion batteries. But we love cars, not infrastructure, and that’s what has been missing from our Better Place coverage: real car related stuff. So here I am, in the front seat of Better Place’s actual electric car. Of course, when I say actual, what I mean is that this is actually a Renault Laguna, a rather bland French midsize car, and one car Renault doesn’t intend to electrify in its joint venture with Better Place. So what’s its business being green in the car park with stickers all around it reading ‘EV’ and flowers emitting from its exhaust? (Read More…)
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.
It goes without saying that it’s always good news for a business to be able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars on the financial markets. Just as important as the financial boost, such capital-raising also raises the profile of the company, presenting it as a viable investment and implicitly endorsing its underlying business plan. In the case of Project Better Place’s recent $350m funding boost however, the benefits might be largely limited to the firm’s balance book. Heavy participation by HSBC, Lazard and Morgan Stanley do help raise Better Place’s profile, but HSBC and Lazard are the only new investors in this most recent round of financing: Morgan Stanley, IsraelCorp, VantagePoint and other previous investors make up the rest of the round. This speaks to a fundamental challenge underlining Project Better Place: broadening, rather than deepening its appeal and support.
Denmark is keen to show the world, especially after the Copenhagen Conference, that they mean “green.” Denmark is setting up an infrastructure to support electric car recharging, however the other side to this grand scheme are throwing their toys out of the electric car. The Copenhagen Post reports that Renault are threatening to withdraw the electric cars which they were supposed to supply to “Better Place”, the company monitoring the installation of the electric car infrastructure. The reason behind this shocking behaviour (see what I did there?) is that Renault believe that the Danish government are not giving enough favourable car tax breaks to electric cars. The government’s policy is to give electric cars exemption from normal vehicle registration tax of 180%* until 2012.
While we at TTAC continue to cover the serious, the silly and the sublime from the world of cars in this holiday season, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. We have a grip of new blog and editorial series in development right now, the first of which we’re debuting today: The Project Better Place Birthwatch. This series will be a collaboration between a new contributor here, Tal Bronfer, who will be monitoring and reporting on Better Place’s Israeli rollout, and Martin Schwoerer who will be covering Denmark’s collaboration with the EV dream company. True to TTAC’s mission, we’ve asked Messrs Bronfer and Schwoerer to dig deep into Better Place’s heady swirl of public funding, private companies, and new technology to critically explore the reality of Better Place’s reimagination of the automotive relationship. Because coverage of all things EV tends to be enthusiast- or hobbyist-oriented (read: strictly for the fanboys), the idea for this series is to look beyond Better Place’s green-tinted pitch and learn more about the true viability, costs, benefits and complications of the nascent EV infrastructure business. To ensure that we don’t miss any of the important questions, please take a moment to read Tal’s introduction to the fundamentals of Project Better Place, and let us know what questions you would like answered and what elements you would like to see explored as we take on this sprawling story.
How do you make the world a Better Place? If you ask Shai Agassi, president and founder of the eponymous American-Israeli Company, the answer lies in the development of an infrastructure that makes charging an electric car as simple as pulling over in a gas station. This deceptively simple idea has spawned an international project, which brings together automakers, governments, activists and scientists in a hugely ambitious attempt at creating the first localized electric vehicle charging infrastructures. With brand new technology, millions of tax dollars and the fate of at least one global automaker hanging in the balance, the evolution of Better Place is a crucial story in the rise of electric vehicles. But before we begin chronicling the build-up to this ambitious plan, we have to get back to the basics of EVs and their fundamental shortcomings. (Read More…)
Along with Israel, Denmark is one of the first countries to sign on to Project Better Place’s attempt to establish a viable electric car infrastructure. And as with all early adopters, Denmark is paying a pretty price for the experiment. The country is spending $100m on infrastructure, including charging points and battery-swap stations. Moreover, Better Place’s partner, public utility Dong Energy, is trying to run the new EV infrastructure entirely on wind power, which is already the source of 20 percent of Denmark’s energy. “We’re the perfect match for a windmill-based utility,” Better Place founder and CEO Shai Agassi tells the NY Times. “If you have a bunch of batteries waiting to be charged, it’s like having a lot of buckets waiting for rain.” Despite the close government involvement in the project, Danes are still wary of making a wholesale switch to EVs, prompting the government to offer $40,000 in consumer incentives for electric vehicles, as well as free parking in downtown Copenhagen. Though there’s plenty of skepticism in Denmark about the plan, that incentive is expected to make a huge difference.