Inside Israel's First Battery Swap Station

Tal Bronfer
by Tal Bronfer

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.

I couldn’t blame the residents of Kiryat Ekron – a small town located about 20 minutes south of Tel Aviv – for mistaking Better Place’s latest effort for an automatic car wash. Examined up close, Better Place’s first commercial car battery switch station still looks like a carwash for the yuppie: it’s a white, square structure with an appropriately modern rounded-rectangle tunnel attached to it, standing in the backyard of a gas station.

But before we talk about switching batteries, let’s talk about cars. Namely, let’s talk about the Renault Fluence Z.E, which Better Place sets to be its most important car in Israel. So far, Better Place has only demonstrated their solution to the public using a fleet of converted Renault Lagunas – one of which I briefly drove last year. The launch of the first Israeli battery switch station was the first opportunity for me to meet the nearly-finalized prototype of Better Place’s flagship in person.

Unsurprisingly, it’s based off the Renault Fluence – which in its turn is a bigger, four-door version of the Megané, targeted mainly at developing markets outside of Europe. While the Fluence is formally a compact car – despite being quite large for its segment – its electrified sibling errs ever further towards midsize in the automotive wardrobe, having been extended by a few inches in order to accommodate the battery somewhere underneath the rear seats. Interior dimensions seem to have remained the same, while trunk space was slightly compromised in the conversion process.

While Better Place didn’t let us drive the cars ourselves, performance figures seem to be adequate – just over 10 seconds from 0 to 60 mph and an electrically (no pun intended) governed top speed of about 90 mph – all that from an engine putting out about 90 horsepower and 167 ft-lb of torque. Interestingly, according to Better Place officials, the entire battery pack weighs just under 660 pounds, while Renault itself gives a more optimistic 550 pound weight figure.

The battery switch process itself is thoroughly unexciting, which must mean great praise for Better Place’s work in developing the concept. The driver only needs to flash his Better Place RFID card at the machine, drive into the rather narrow tunnel and find something to occupy himself with during the upcoming 3 minutes. The car slides into position, slightly lifted – then an underground robot grabs the battery, disappears – and returns with a fresh one. All of this is invisible to the technologically impaired driver, while the geekier amongst us can watch the entire process streamed live on a TV planted outside.

Better Place says that the stations are designed to be modular and compatible with several different vehicles and that 15 batteries are stocked in every station at all times. Even though that doesn’t sound like a lot, Better Place claims that the calculations they’ve made found this to be the optimal number. 8 more switch stations are in construction, and the company set 40 stations throughout the country as its initial goal, despite initially promising 70 stations by the end of 2010. According to company officials, they found that 40 stations provide a complete coverage of Israel, and that more stations may be installed in the future according to answer demand in key locations.

Shai Agassi, the company’s charismatic CEO and founder, was as optimistic and ambitious as usual. “You’re seeing the second Apple”, he announced in the press conference that followed the switch demo. This time, however, Agassi and his team were significantly less keen on throwing promises around – only committing to starting distribution to customers on Q4/2011.

Despite already announcing its pricing schemes in Denmark in the beginning of this month, Better Place refuses to reveal Israeli prices at this time. An internal Better Place memo which leaked to the Israeli press, however, sets the price of the Renault Fluence Z.E at 123,000 NIS, or about $34,500. That may sound like a lot of money for a compact car, but consider that in heavily taxed Israel, the bestselling car – the Mazda3 – is only some $800 cheaper, while lacking much of the equipment that the tax-reduced Fluence Z.E is expected to carry standard.

As fleet sales account for more than 60% of the new car market in Israel, Better Place is aiming to sign contracts with the country’s most prominent rental and lease companies in which it guarantees buyback of its vehicles after three years in service in exchange for a commitment by the companies to price the Fluence Z.E closely to internal combustion competitors.

If the Danish pricing schemes are of any indication, Better Place is expected to offer several different plans for various mileages. In Denmark, the most expensive plan – allowing for unlimited mileage –costs the user about 400 euros (or about $550) per month, while the most basic – allowing for up to 12,000 miles per year – costs from 200 ($280) to 250 ($350) euros. Considering Israel’s slightly higher gasoline prices, the appropriate plans in the Holy Land will likely cost more compared to Denmark.

And if those prices sound a bit high to you, it’s probably because they are. A very rough calculation puts one month of Denmark-priced gasoline for an average compact car travelling 12,000 annual miles very close to the price Better Place offers for that mileage, and perhaps even slightly higher. It seems that Better Place’s main lure would be the ‘unlimited’ packages. On its end, Better Place doesn’t try to refute this claim, only going as far as promising running costs “comparable or lower” to those of equivalent gasoline vehicles.

One of the most interesting points brought up in the press conference was the compatibility of Better Place’s charging points with third party cars. The company was keen to emphasize that the charging points, of which a 1,000 have already been installed in public and private parking garages, are designed according to a “standard”, which will allow non-Better Place cars to be charged using their current infrastructure. Agassi went as far as claiming that the company doesn’t view fixed-battery EVs as competition since they only target drivers travelling short distances. Agassi was also reluctant to answer journalists’ questions regarding specific models, but said that the company is in “negotiation” with several local dealers regarding possible cooperation.

As I was standing next to one of the Fluence Z.Es parked by the curb, a curious passerby interrupted my photoshoot. “Nice looking car,” he said. “What’s the engine’s displacement?” “It’s electric,” I dutifully replied. “Oh, cool”, he noted as he continued to circle the car. “So how big is the engine?”

“Our target is for people to say it’s a car”, said Agassi in his opening statement. Did they succeed in that? The answer is a resounding yes. Better Place and Renault have managed to create a car that looks, feels and refuels like your average Camry, and for that they deserve credit. Unfortunately, that’s not the toughest challenge the company has to face. The jury is still out on the viability of Better Place’s model in real life, and in an industry as conservative, the company isn’t going to have an easy time proving the skeptics wrong.

inside israels first battery swap station

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3 of 18 comments
  • BoredOOMM BoredOOMM on Mar 29, 2011

    Now we know where Government Motors will export the next 238 Volt not sold to GE.

  • John Horner John Horner on Apr 19, 2011

    The battery swap thing is going to fail, first off because there are no standards for battery packs between various makes and models, and no reason for manufacturers to standardize. Have you noticed how every cell phone, laptop and tablet has its own custom battery pack? Have you ever tried to share batteries between your Dewalt and your Makita drills? This isn't by accident. The manufacturers have a vested interest in keeping customers locked in to their products.

    Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are far, far more likely to one day become widely used than is this present boondoggle.

    • PlentyofCars PlentyofCars on Apr 24, 2011

      Then why don't they all sell their own blend of gasoline, so you have to refill at that car company's own stations?? It all depends if enough car companies team up on batteries. It does cut costs to produce things in large quantities, A large car battery is a lot different and costly compared to a tiny cell phone battery. The cell phone and camera makers did team up on plug in memory chips. I bought two extra batteries with my last phone since they were cheap.

  • Nrd515 I bought an '88 S10 Blazer with the 4.3. We had it 4 years and put just about 48K on it with a bunch of trips to Nebraska and S. Dakota to see relatives. It had a couple of minor issues when new, a piece of trim fell off the first day, and it had a seriously big oil leak soon after we got it. The amazinly tiny starter failed at about 40K, it was fixed under some sort of secret warranty and we got a new Silverado as a loaner. Other than that, and a couple of tires that blew when I ran over some junk on the road, it was a rock. I hated the dash instrumentation, and being built like a gorilla, it was about an inch and a half too narrow for my giant shoulders, but it drove fine, and was my second most trouble free vehicle ever, only beaten by my '82 K5 Blazer, which had zero issues for nearly 50K miles. We sold the S10 to a friend, who had it over 20 years and over 400,000 miles on the original short block! It had a couple of transmissions, a couple of valve jobs, a rear end rebuild at 300K, was stolen and vandalized twice, cut open like a tin can when a diabetic truck driver passed out(We were all impressed at the lack of rust inside the rear quarters at almost 10 years old, and it just went on and on. Ziebart did a good job on that Blazer. All three of his sons learned to drive in it, and it was only sent to the boneyard when the area above the windshield had rusted to the point it was like taking a shower when it rained. He now has a Jeep that he's put a ton of money into. He says he misses the S10's reliablity a lot these days, the Jeep is in the shop a lot.
  • Jeff S Most densely populated areas have emission testing and removing catalytic converters and altering pollution devices will cause your vehicle to fail emission testing which could effect renewing license plates. In less populated areas where emission testing is not done there would probably not be any legal consequences and the converter could either be removed or gutted both without having to buy specific parts for bypassing emissions. Tampering with emission systems would make it harder to resell a vehicle but if you plan on keeping the vehicle and literally running it till the wheels fall off there is not much that can be done if there is no emission testing. I did have a cat removed on a car long before mandatory emission testing and it did get better mpgs and it ran better. Also had a cat gutted on my S-10 which was close to 20 years old which increased performance and efficiency but that was in a state that did not require emission testing just that reformulated gas be sold during the Summer months. I would probably not do it again because after market converters are not that expensive on older S-10s compared to many of the newer vehicles. On newer vehicles it can effect other systems that are related to the operating and the running of the vehicle. A little harder to defeat pollution devices on newer vehicles with all the systems run by microprocessors but if someone wants to do it they can. This law could be addressing the modified diesels that are made into coal rollers just as much as the gasoline powered vehicles with cats. You probably will still be able to buy equipment that would modify the performance of a vehicles as long as the emission equipment is not altered.
  • ToolGuy I wonder if Vin Diesel requires DEF.(Does he have issues with Sulfur in concentrations above 15ppm?)
  • ToolGuy Presented for discussion:
  • Kevin Ford can do what it's always done. Offer buyouts to retirement age employees, and transfers to operating facilities to those who aren't retirement age. Plus, the transition to electric isn't going to be a finger snap one time event. It's going to occur over a few model years. What's a more interesting question is: Where will today's youth find jobs in the auto industry given the lower employment levels?