Project Better Place Birthwatch: An Introduction To Project Better Place

Tal Bronfer
by Tal Bronfer

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.

Tal Bronfer
Tal Bronfer

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  • David C. Holzman David C. Holzman on Dec 22, 2009

    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.

  • Accs Accs on Dec 27, 2009

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

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  • Michael Gallagher I agree to a certain extent but I go back to the car SUV transition. People began to buy SUVs because they were supposedly safer because of their larger size when pitted against a regular car. As more SUVs crowded the road that safety advantage began to dwindle as it became more likely to hit an equally sized SUV. Now there is no safety advantage at all.
  • Probert The new EV9 is even bigger - a true monument of a personal transportation device. Not my thing, but credit where credit is due - impressive. The interior is bigger than my house and much nicer with 2 rows of lounge seats and 3rd for the plebes. 0-60 in 4.5 seconds, around 300miles of range, and an e-mpg of 80 (90 for the 2wd). What a world.
  • Ajla "Like showroom" is a lame description but he seems negotiable on the price and at least from what the two pictures show I've dealt with worse. But, I'm not interested in something with the Devil's configuration.
  • Tassos Jong-iL I really like the C-Class, it reminds me of some trips to Russia to visit Dear Friend VladdyPoo.