By on December 21, 2009

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.

There’s nothing fundamentally new about the electrification of the automobile. From GM’s early-nineties EV1 that everyone loves to hate, to ambitious declarations such as the Nissan Leaf, electric cars have proven capable of generating an impulse of media attention before falling away into the backstage of automotive history. And not much else.

But why? On the face of it, EVs are a ubiquitous all-in-one solution to the environmental-equivalent of the flu: the internal combustion engine. As much as there is to love about internal combustion, there’s no doubt that it’s bad for the environment and it’s literally everywhere.

Electric motors are highly efficient due to the small number of moving parts causing friction and added complexity. More importantly, they don’t waste energy on unneeded heat. Add emission-free, flower-spitting tailpipes and the possibility of charging the batteries using alternate green power sources, such as hydro-electric power, and you get an environmentalist’s wet dream.

One reason of the public’s avoidance of EVs – and possibly the most significant of all – is their limited range, and attendant “range anxiety.” True, Toyota has addressed this problem with the Prius and GM wants to reinvent it still with the Volt. But the truth is that these cars will ultimately burn gas to get you to your favorite shopping outlet, whether you like it or not.

Of course, this is not the only reason. Electric cars also haven’t been able to answer the needs of consumers whose morning commute involves more than hopping to the other side of the street. Many of them aren’t available to the public and worse still – they aren’t typically normal cars. The G-WIZ by REVA was (is) an automotive joke, albeit a very green one. Most electric cars can’t carry four adults in comfort and achieve viable cruising speeds – in short: they don’t answer the needs of a middle-aged, middle-sized, middle-income’d Bob from the ‘burbs.

This is where Better Place steps in. Basing itself on the cellphone provider model, Better Place wants to sell you energy, in the same way AT&T sells you airtime. And as with the cellphone provider model, it will subsidize the cost of the operating device – batteries – and provide you with several methods of obtaining the product – that is, energy.

Fine, you say, but where’s the car? They won’t make one. Better Place stresses that they provide you with a service, not a car. That’s why back in early 2008, the company signed a memorandum of understanding with Renault-Nissan which will provide the platform for Better Place’s solution. Have no fear: since this is TTAC, we will be focusing on the cars themselves as this series goes on.

Two pilots are being carried out: one in Israel, the other in Denmark. The reason for choosing these very different countries isn’t surprising: itcomes down to taxation.

Israeli taxation dictates a standard 85% tax on all vehicles, with a refund given based on ‘green credentials’. However, a new reform has been recently introduced – and without boring you with the very boring details – for the next couple of years, EV buyers will only pay 10% tax.

It’s a similar story with Denmark, albeit worse: the Scandinavian country has no less than 200% tax on a new vehicle. Denmark also recently altered this policy to exclude electric vehicles, which will be eligible for a minimum of $40,000 in tax break, as well as free parking in Downtown Copenhagen which is apparently a rare commodity.

Better Place also signed a contract with Danish Energy Company DONG, which will allow energy collected from wind turbines to be stored for overnight charging, when consumer demand is fairly low.

Better Place claims that their current batteries are capable of piloting an average compact sedan for anywhere between 100-120 miles. But as Top Gear has proven with the Tesla Roadster, there is much optimism involved in the calculation of these figures – realistic use with air conditioning, freeway speeds and a heavy right foot would probably take a large slice off this promised range.

Beyond that, Better Place’s solution includes two different methods of replenishing energy: via charging stations and through battery-changing stations.

The heart of the charging process is the charging pole, slightly reminiscent of the traditional parking meter. All you do is pop out your Better Place customer card, plug your car in and charging begins.

Better Place wants to put these poles everywhere. That is, in malls, parking lots and offices – beyond the necessary plug-in at home. The company intends to spread about 500,000 charging poles throughout Israel, and has already installed several hundreds of them.

But what if you need to go on a longer journey? What about range anxiety? Better Place wants to challenge this problem with a gas-station like facility that would automatically replace your empty battery pack with a newly charged one. In a demonstration held in Yokohoma, Japan back in May, a Better-Place’d Nissan Rogue had its batteries replaced in under 2 minutes, which the company says is less than the average refueling time.

Finally, the company’s solution is backed by a smart kit of software, which will manage energy distribution. It will, for example, make use of lower electricity tariffs at night and charge batteries at that time.

So, is everything rosy and green? Will polar bears send letters of gratitude to Better Place’s offices? Most importantly – will Better Place’s solution make EVs a viable alternative-fuel option for the masses? We will be trying to answer these questions during this series. We’ll see what challenges the company faces (and how – or how not – it’s planning on solving them) and monitor how the pilots work out. Surprises can be expected.

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28 Comments on “Project Better Place Birthwatch: An Introduction To Project Better Place...”

  • avatar

    So how many spare batteries per vehicle will be needed in the system to ensure you don’t get to a battery replacement station and find that all of the batteries are still charging? Just imagine the queues of cars waiting for a new battery on peak travel days just before Thanksgiving! At least gas stations don’t often run out and one tanker truck holds plenty for a lot of cars.

  • avatar

    One other very important aspect of the Better Place model is car/driver/system communications. The cars are to be equipped with cell phones that can communicate with the central system that knows where open changers can be found, as well as charged up battery packs at the stations. The driver also tells the car where the next destination is so that the car can determine if a stop for fresh batteries is needed, and if so, direct the driver to a station that can do the swap, otherwise point the driver to an open charger. Obviously, this still only works in urban areas where public chargers and battery swap stations can be common enough that drivers can reach one without much of a problem.

  • avatar

    I wrote about better place for TTAC here
    One of my problems with this is that even with lots of battery swap stations, which there aren’t going to be imo, you’re still likely to run into range anxiety if you do any spontaneous driving with the current ranges. After running out of gasoline for the only time in my life, after having driven close to 400,000 miles in my life–this with all relatively fuel efficient vehicles–I am now filling up as soon as possible after I pass the quarter tank mark. I should mention I only use shell stations, the only top tier gasoline that is widely available in the Boston area, and these are a lot more common than battery swap stations will be. The night I ran out of fuel, I had counted on gas stations being open late, and they weren’t. I actually ran out of fuel right next to the pumps at a closed shell station, about 4 miles from home, and I ran out despite having hypermiled the last 20 miles or so, once I realized i was going to be in danger of running out.
    I am betting that in Israel, and in Denmark, a lot of people are going to run out of electrons.
    Despite these negative comments, I am very much in favor of this experiment–for others, not for me. In Denmark, it will probably be possible to run BP cars entirely on wind power, and where-ever they run, BP cars will save our precious petroleum, and reduce payments to a lot of countries we don’t like. So more power to them.

  • avatar

    One of the problems with battery swapping is the question of quality.  What motivation does the supplier have to provide a battery pack that has a minimum level of storage capacity?  As batteries age, their capacity drops.  Different vehicles will utilize a ‘standard’ battery differently, as will different drivers.  What recourse will a buyer have when they claim their new battery only lasted 80 miles instead of 120?  Who’s to say they’re right or wrong?
    At least now we have standardized periodic inspections for octane and quantity.  A similar system would need to be developed for batteries.
    Moreover, theft and blackmarket activities could become an issue for batteries that are ‘prematurely’ removed from the market, but end up in people’s garages instead.

    • 0 avatar
      Greg Locock

      Smart on board monitoring of the battery will ensure that you a re billed for your net nergy useage, and fined for any battery damaging antics.

    • 0 avatar

      @Greg Locock:
      Smart on-board monitoring + fines = privacy invasion issues.  Drivers will be unwilling to reveal their driving techniques, distance, etc to anyone.  And who’s to say what is ‘damaging’, when the battery itself could be the culprit?
      When I fill up today, nobody knows why, or how many miles I’ve driven.  I prefer to keep it that way.

  • avatar

    I just watched the video. Oy vey. First they play your heart strings. Idealized Dad (move over, Ward Cleaver, you are NOTHING compared to this guy), adorable little girl, beautiful momly mom, with just enough hint of sex appeal… doing errands in their stylish (but ridiculously slit-windowed–just on that basis, I don’t want one) EV. Then they make my bullshit detectors ping like a geiger counter in the Hanford waste site as they conflate traffic avoidance including nav systems with Better Place. Yeah, maybe BP will include such in the system, although I haven’t heard about it, but anyone can (and does already) offer similar options.
    But I still hope they survive to take pressure off of petroleum.

    • 0 avatar

      I kinda liked the clip for the very reason that it contains all the same cliches found in every idealized vision of THE FUTURE going back at least to the 1950’s.  Meet George B.P. Jetson . . .

  • avatar

    What’s to prevent vandals from pulling the plug on every EV that’s charging, or worse yet, simply driving an axe through everyone’s charging cord?  Or robbing customers who are trapped on the swapping fixture and can’t drive off?

    Will there be a breakaway provision for the cord in case someone forgets to unplug?
    And most people won’t be  interested in handling a power cord in a driving rainstorm or sub-zero temperatures, or when they’re in a hurry.

  • avatar

    We’d just be changing cartels from oil-producing countries, to countries like China that have a virtual monopoly on metals like dysprosium.

    And the electric charge has to be produced somewhere- right now, and for the foreseeable future, that means coal-powered plants.

    Sorry, but biofuels are a better way to go.

  • avatar

    a. re biofuels: it’s not at all an easy solution.
    b. In many parts of the world it doesn’t mean coal for the foreseeable future at all. In Denmark, one of BP’s first locations, the country produces the equivalent of 20% of its electricity consumption from wind. But they are only able to use about 6% because of the relative inability to store the stuff, and so they sell it cutrate to Sweden, Norway, and Germany. But with lots of EV battery charging to do, they will be able to use a lot more of it.
    Of course, where-ever coal is the dominant source of power, and wind plants haven’t been built, it would rely on coal. Coal supplies half of US electricity. But wind power is growing faster in the world generally than any other source. And solar is growing as well.

  • avatar

    Nicola Tesla is prolly rolling in his grave right about now: He was in the process of making a system of wireless power and energy transmission, which, if successful, would’ve solved all the problems we’re having with electric car infrastructure and moreover, the electrical grid system in general. But that’s neither here nor there.

  • avatar

    This smells like a massive change (read expense) in infrastructure.  Granted, virtually everyone has electricity, so setting up a charging station shouldn’t be much more complicated than adding a coin-op vaccum cleaner, but no one ever seems to consider the increased load on the grid.  While some states are wanting to monitor your every kilowatt of usage because we are not building new powerplants, (because of enviornmental reasons) the other hand of the environmentals are creating a new drain on the system. 

  • avatar

    The Better Place system might work in Israel or Denmark, two small countries. Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa are all within about 60 miles of each other. It’s only 300  miles from the Lebanese border to Eilat on the Red Sea. An 80-100 mile range will suffice for most driving and then the battery swap stations in strategic locations will allow long distance (by Israeli standards) travel.

  • avatar

    Yeah, in principle (on the range sufficing). But supposing you do even a little bit of unplanned driving in a day, and you’re not conveniently close to one of the 100 battery swap stations in Israel? Yeah, given the financial disincentives for ICE in Israel, I’m sure it will work, more or less. But I suspect that even there one will have to plan their driving far more carefully than if you were driving ICE. I want it to become popular, but I don’t want to have to be part of this, or to have to drive an EV until the charging time drops below 5 minutes and the range is greater than that of an RX-8.

  • avatar

    Probably most of the charging will occur at night, when electricity demand drops quite substantially, so it’s not likely to be such a tax on the grid. In fact, the electric power industry likes EVs because the power plants that would normally be idle at night get to run, which is a far more efficient use of capital. EVs could also be used as storage devices for electric power, sopping up wind and solar that get generated when using them is inconvenient, and giving back to the grid under conditions where there wasn’t enough power available to it.

    Back to the video:
    * that “zero emissions” will be a stretch for years to come, except perhaps in Denmark if they can funnel all the excess wind into these things.
    * That reference to “cerulean blue” certainly provides a certain snob appeal
    * the Dad is a prize-winning specimen. Great voice, too.
    * the bird noise at the beginning is not quite subtle enough
    * the “music” is subtly annoying the way New Age music often is. Why couldn’t they have used the sound of a Boxster instead? You know, one of those artificial sounds for the dangerously quiet electrics?
    * overall, the video is a bit of a mind worm. You are at once attracted and annoyed by it, and the annoyance is multiplied by the fact that they are so easily able to manipulate you.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t mean to be stubborn, but doesn’t that then raise the demand in off peak hours?  I can water my lawn in the evening or early morning, but can I get adequate utility out of my EV with the same methodology?  I understand that you’re doing some possibility thinking here, but the best alternative to the internal combustion engine is probably the one that causes the least lifestyle change and effects the infrastructure of  a country the least. 

  • avatar

    I almost forgot about that thoroughly annoying “good morning Henry.” I hate it on AOL and Yahoo, and somehow it would b e even worse on my car. Puleeze, spare your customers that nonsense, Shai Agassi, if you are by some chance reading these blogs. None of your customers are going to be under 13.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    We still don’t have standardized battery packs for cell phones or laptops. What makes anyone thing standardized automotive traction batteries are going to take hold.
    The odds against the so cutely named “Better Place” plan actually working in practice are something like 100:1 against.

    • 0 avatar

      The cellphone battery standardization thing..

      Thats a consumer v corporate secrets issue… which leads to other standardization issues like the bricks for laptops.

  • avatar

    There have been a lot of questions about the effects of the cold on a EV battery.  I have a more mundane question that I haven’t heard asked.  More than once in the past 10 years we’ve had power outages here in flyover country.  Maybe the folks in suburban East and West coast cities don’t have such problems; so be it.  But I’ve lived through ice storms and Tornados that left the power grid incapacitated for a week.  Then what?

  • avatar

    definately the feel-good (Look out SMUG alert!) video, now try the  “give us money and a try” video.

    The Australianised Californian video

  • avatar

    To make something like this work in the US, what they could really use is a small, detachable range-extension device.  Something like a 20 hp air-cooled motorcycle engine, with 6 gallon fuel tank and generator, that  you hook up to when you know you are, or may likely, be taking a longer trip.  Perhaps this could hook up to a trailer-hitch type mount, or perhaps the system could  use two smaller battery packs, and the motor module could replace one of them.
    Overall though, I think the BetterPlace model is a very good idea.  If it’s every going to catch on enough to make a difference though, there’d have to be an open, competitive standard for mechanical interface and electrical characteristics (like GSM or USB standards) that any carmaker or energy provider can use and compete in, and this won’t happen for a while

  • avatar

    The longest power outage I’ve endured in my 10.5 adult years in Boston was 36 hrs. But last winter, or maybe the winter before, one part of the state had about a week. The thought of a week-long power outage is absolutely frightening, especially if the cars depend on it. But I don’t think we’re going to see pure EVs much in this country for at least the next 15-20 years, if then. And by that time, a lot of people will likely have PVs on their roofs (me for example if I stay in my current house–1700 sq ft with two very low pitches, ideal), and there may be a lot of other decentralized generators.

  • avatar

    I can KIND of swing the concept of a EV car… If I didnt like /LOVE to drive.

    NTM the scale of this vehicle.. is LARGE. It was MASSIVE against the Forester in the film.

    But what I dont get is..
    He filled up at 75% for a ride that might have taken him 5-10min., kid to school and then work.. all on a 2 lane road.. and he was worried about a charge?! He was driving on an optimum time. Spring time, middle of day (not rushour) with perfect weather, no accessories running and 2 people at under 30mph.

    Id like to see this on I-95N, in the middle of winter, coming out of DE/PA/NJ/MD at about 75, plowing ya way up in thick traffic with 3″ of snow on the ground, with 2 people, wipers, heater / defroster running.

    And by the end of the day / ad / video, they also seem to focus more on the technology (of every sort) rather than driving the damn car. He did few miles (under 30 that day) and it required a full charge.

    It FEEDS on the concept of not being able to find another charging station.

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