Does better place deliver on its name?

by Ernie Hernandez on May 20, 2012

Better Place logo

Isreali/California based company focuses on sustainable transportation

Shai Agassi is a young wealthy man, born and educated in Israel but creating his wealth as a software entrepreneur in California. He sold his first company to SAP, a business management applications company, in his early 30’s for $400 million. After creating and developing two companies ultimately sold to SAP, Mr. Agassi became a part of SAP’s executive board. When the opportunity to become CEO did not present itself, Mr. Agassi left the company. All of this prior to reaching his 40th birthday.

Better Place, founded in 2007, was inspired by a question asked at the World Economic Forum in 2005 – “How do you make the world a better place by 2020?” Seemingly taking the question to heart, Mr. Agassi founded Better Place with the intention of moving the world’s transportation structure away from oil toward renewable energy. Their tagline is now “accelerating the transition to sustainable transportation.” A lofty, challenging goal considering the might of the entrenched global oil industry. So how does one get started in moving toward this goal? Just as with any other monumental task – one step at a time.

Tokyo, Japan – home to 60,000 taxis. Accounting for only two percent of total passenger miles in Japan, Japan’s taxi service accounted for 20 percent of overall passenger vehicle emissions. What better place to evaluate an electric vehicle (EV) taxi program than in Tokyo? In April 2010 Better Place initiated a pilot program using three EV taxis and incorporating a novel battery switch station. Rather than waiting perhaps several hours to charge a depleted battery, the taxi would drive into a battery swap station, the depleted battery would be removed and replaced with a fully charged battery. The taxi would then continue in its service. Initially a 90 day project, the program was extended through November of 2010. Average battery switch time? Less than a minute. Final results have not been published, but we are certain that the data gathered are being studied closely by all parties involved. The EVs used as taxis in the study were converted Nissan Rogues with swappable battery packs mounted underneath the car.

Better Place Tokyo Taxi

In January 2010, Better Place received a funding commitment of $350 million. About that same time, Better Place signed an agreement with the Renault-Nissan alliance to use Alliance vehicles in an experimental electric vehicle project – the first of its kind in France. This project would improve the database and examine real world usage prior to the on sale date of vehicles to the public.

Since the deployment of the Tokyo taxi project Better Place has developed several battery changing stations in various parts of the globe – Israel, China and Denmark. Amsterdam airport is the next European location to offer a battery changing station, set to be online this summer. One of the more interesting projects though, we see developing in California.

Better Place has made a commitment to install four battery changing stations in the San Francisco to San Jose corridor in support of an EV taxi service similar to the Tokyo EV taxi project. Currently there are no Nissan or Renault vehicles offered in the United States that will be able to benefit from these battery changing stations, so they will be of use only to those companies participating in the program. The upcoming Tesla Model S may have the ability to offer battery swap technology, though Tesla is not currently publicly working with Better Place. This project though could prove to be a valuable study of battery charging, driving patterns and battery life under more heavy duty use than we might object our cars to. Since the drive from the Golden Gate Bridge (the extreme northern edge of San Francisco) to the south side of San Jose is just shy of 64 miles, according to Google Maps, four changing stations should be adequate for an initial evaluation. An analysis of taxi traffic patterns should determine the most heavily used areas with battery charge stations placed to support these conditions. Perhaps a better plan would be to focus on just one city and cluster the changing stations to optimize their use for cab drivers in that locale. Our feeling is that more cab drivers likely have more fares within the city than driving from San Francisco to San Jose, but we could be off base.

This whole switchable battery idea raises the question – would it be more economical to lease the battery and switch out as needed, or would it be more economical to own the car/battery combination and have a network of DC fast chargers available to use as needed. Certainly for fleet owners, such as taxi companies, the switchable battery idea has some appeal. As current EV owners, until we have functioning systems in place to choose from, we are relegated to speculation and pondering with no simple resolution yet in sight.

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