By on March 29, 2011

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.

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18 Comments on “Inside Israel’s First Battery Swap Station...”

  • avatar

    This doesn’t sound good at all. The mileage charges seem really steep. From your report, at least, I don’t see any advantage for the consumer going with Better Place. And although for my own reasons I wouldn’t be inclined to sign up, even if I lived in Israel or Denmark, I’d like to see the model work, at least in those tiny countries. This doesn’t bode well.

    My article on Better Place from 2 1/2 years ago

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    For unlimited mileage it actually is a very good deal. A lot of companies in the metro-Atlanta area (and quite a few drivers) have to drive 600 to 800 miles a week.
    Although ‘everything’ is expensive in Israel, the running costs for an unlimited mileage vehicle like this would not be so bad. It comes to about $20 a day which even if you add a $10 daily profit and about $10 in taxes would equate to about $40. That’s what I would likely pay at Enterprise for the same type of sedan with unlimited mileage. Not to mention gas cost.
    From a ‘scale’ perspective it is going to be the heaviest users who are going to be the early adopters of this type of technology. Rental car companies, courier and fleet firms, the business is already there. But it will definitely take years before it becomes a viable alternative for the average consumer.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, as you say, it will take years for this to be viable for the average consumer. I don’t know, Steve, but I’m guessing that heavy users in Israel probably drive a lot less than heavy users in Atlanta, and that this might not be such a good deal, and my impression is that this is aimed at consumers, not business drivers, but if you (or Tal) know otherwise, let me know. Seems also to me that the two daily battery switching stops someone driving 600-800 miles a week would have to make might be inconvenient, since with only 40 switching stations in the entire country (which is roughly the size of Massachusetts), one might have to go significantly out of one’s way for batteries).

      • 0 avatar
        Anton Shmerkin

        WIRED magazine had done a cover story on Better Place in September 2008. Speaking of the ‘Atlanta way of driving’, its peculiar how the US officials, whom Agassi approached with his dream plan back then, would just chuckle and flatly wave off all of his proposals. Reminder: I’m talking about the 2008.
        Agassi’s way of thinking would make perfect sense for countries like US where people traditionally drive two hours a day but four years ago he was shown the door. I am very curious to know if, in light of the new developments in the US regarding the new EV policies and all, Agassi is still hopeful to shake up the US infrastructure. Is he ready to pitch to new people?

    • 0 avatar
      Tal Bronfer

      David, that depends. Average annual mileage for a privately-owned vehicle in Israel is about 10,000 miles. However, as I mentioned, over 60% of the market is made out of long-term rentals and leases. In many cases, the employing company pays for the fuel (it’s sort of a tax haven which is rather complicated and boring to explain), so drivers are inclined to travel more – in these cases we’re talking about an average of about 20,000 miles – perhaps even more.

      If you ask me, fleet purchases will be the vast majority of Better Place’s sales in Israel – certainly a lot more than their share in the entire car market.

  • avatar

    I am not a big fan of this model, but let me at least say a few things.
    First, I don’t think the battery switch is needed for daily commutes.  I imagine the switch stations being on the equivalent of the interstate highways.  Then you would be able to use one for the occasional long trip.  This would not be possible in the Nissan Leaf, although 30 minute quick charge is possibly comparable.
    Secondly,  I don’t much care for the ” typical Israeli fashion” crack.  Most EV efforts are behind schedule.  I don’t think Better Place or Israel is unique in that regard.
    John C. Briggs

    • 0 avatar

      Tal’s an Israeli. The “typical Israeli fashion” regarding a somewhat lax attitude towards deadlines is an informed comment.

      • 0 avatar

        I work with a bunch of Israelis. I’ll have to ask what the Hebrew word is for “mañana” because it must certainly exist given the lackadaisical attitude towards deadlines and bugfixes/change orders.

        Never been there, though. I can’t even read the gas station sign. Bad Jew, no challah for you!

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    It depends on the business that you do.
    Hotels that pick up folks from the airport. As do taxis and shuttle services have to undergo an awful lot of driving during the day and wind up at the same place multiple times.
    A lot of companies also have employees that have to drive through certain fixed routes (or areas) from one day to the next to get certain things done. This ranges from cable, utilities and telecommunication companies. To those that regularly visit customers on a weekly basis.
    That business is a huge part of driving costs in every developed western country. I can see the Better Place concept operating well under that segment IF the costs dictate so.
    The regular consumer is further down the road. Right now Better Place’s opportunity will be in converting those businesses that require heavy driving… even in Israel.

  • avatar

    I would rather pay per battery swap.  I’m sure that my mileage will be worse in the cold months when I need to use the heater, so paying by mile doesn’t accurately measure the energy used.
    I only drive 100 km per week though, so I’m probably outside their target market.

  • avatar

    We have had Lift Truck battery change stations at the  GM plant since the late Seventies. Plug in technolgy caused them to be phased out before I retired. We were told that with the new batteries, the driver could plug them in during breaks shift changes etc.

    I’m puzzled why wouldn’t Israel use the Volt or a plug in Prius?

    • 0 avatar

      The guy who invented and owns Better Place wanted to get off of dino completely. It’s partly that he’s Israeli–although company HQ is in Silicon Valley)–and wanted to reduce the flow of petrodollars to Arab states, I think, but with plugin hybrids you wouldn’t need a Better Place. The point of Better Place is to enable people to go anywhere, any time on pure electricity. But if I buy a Volt, I’ve got the auxiliary engine, so I don’t need Better Place.

    • 0 avatar

      Plug in Prius is only a few miles. Great for saving gas but not for motoring without oil

  • avatar

    I expect that their initial pricing is factoring in a certain amount of “green” cred on the part of users, much like other flavors of alt fuel vehicles. If they use extra profits from this pricing to build out charging/swap stations, they could then start making more attractive packages available to attract more cost conscious buyers. Agassi has likened BP’s model to that of cell phones, so I would expect similar trends in the range of packages offered.

    Also, this pricing will only get more attractive as gas prices escalate.

  • avatar

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

  • avatar
    John Horner

    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.

    • 0 avatar

      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.

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