22 Dec 2008: Report

Plugging in to the
Electric Car Revolution

The potential for electric vehicles has been talked about for decades. But a former Israeli software entrepreneur is developing a game-changing infrastructure that could finally make them feasible — a standardized network of charging stations where drivers can plug right in.

by jim motavalli

Futurists have been talking about battery-powered electric cars for as long as there have been futurists. We’ve had viable electric vehicles since before the turn of the last century — New York City was plugging in taxis as early as 1897. Electric vehicles (EVs) offered serious competition to gasoline cars and trucks at least until the 1920s. Henry Ford was fascinated with them, and collaborated with his close friend Thomas Edison on an ultimately unsuccessful plan to bring one to market. Groundswells of interest in EVs arose in the late 1960s, in the early 1970s following the Arab oil embargo, and again when the Iranian oil spigot went dry after the 1979 revolution.

Now we’re all excited about EVs again. Nissan and Renault are gearing up to produce an electric sedan for the mass market by 2012. California-based Tesla Motors, though it has deep financial problems, is starting to roll $100,000 EVs down a production line. Electric versions of the BMW Mini and the Smart car are being tested. Start-ups Aptera and Fisker Automotive are exploring different corners of the market.

Despite all this activity, battery EVs won’t become a mass-market
Carmakers have been wary of anything but small demonstration projects of electric vehicles because no charging network has existed.
phenomenon until and unless there’s a standardized network of charging stations to plug them in. People will need to charge their EVs (which often have a range of 100 miles or less) at home, at work, and while out shopping, too. Carmakers have been wary of anything but small demonstration projects because that network didn’t exist, and cities, states and countries are unlikely to commit millions to build such an infrastructure without readily available cars.

And that’s where Israeli-born Shai Agassi and his company, Better Place, come in. They are promoting a vision of an electric transportation future that includes a widespread charging network, with battery exchange stations (where, for longer trips, depleted packs are exchanged for new ones in just a few minutes), and their auto-company partners are planning to produce the electric cars and trucks that will be plugged into those stations.

Agassi, a former software entrepreneur, has been traveling throughout the world, targeting what he calls “transportation islands,” either actual islands or densely packed urban areas with plentiful commuters in a small area. He’s signed up nations (Israel, Denmark, Japan, Australia), states (Hawaii) and even cities (San Francisco) as partners. In some, but not all of those locations, Better Place is cooperating with the Renault-Nissan Alliance.

Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom
Charging Station
Better Place
A line of Better Place electric
vehicle charging stations in Israel.
, says that the Better Place initiative in the Bay Area is a three-city coalition including San Jose and Oakland, with all three municipalities agreeing to work together on a nine-point plan to offer tax credits, speed up permitting and offer other administrative support for electric vehicle infrastructure. “What we’re doing,” says Ballard, “is taking a bet on the future, the idea that electric vehicles will replace fossil-fuel cars and trucks on the road.”

Agassi’s model is not based on traditional car dealerships and repair stations. Instead, he’s thinking about the cell-phone model, where the hand-held device is incidental to the deal customers make buying air time from a provider.

“We bring in three concepts,” Agassi told me. “The first is that we build the network ahead of the cars. The second is that the battery is part of the infrastructure — you own the car, but we own the batteries. Down the road, when there’s a magic battery with twice the capacity of the one in your car, we can swap it at no cost to you. And the third idea is that drivers will buy miles and pay as they consume them.”

Better Place hasn’t yet finalized its pricing structure. But Deutsche Bank analysts arrived at a hypothetical model in which customers would sign a contract agreeing to pay $550 a month for a year to buy enough electricity for 18,000 miles of travel. The payment includes not only use of the battery pack, but also recharging and unlimited use of the fully automated swapping stations. So there are some similarities to leasing, but the customer gets the fuel thrown in as part of the deal.

The perhaps unlikely catalyst for Better Place was Israeli President Shimon Peres. In 2005, Agassi became a member of the under-40 Young Global
A plethora of announced projects raises questions about whether automakers can meet the demand with large fleets of roadworthy electric vehicles.
Leaders forum, which challenged its members to make the world “a better place” by 2020. Agassi’s answer to that challenge was to come up with the idea of a new infrastructure for EVs, and he unveiled it in 2006 at a meeting attended by Peres and Bill Clinton, among others, at the Brookings Institute’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. Israel would be a good place to test his electric future, Agassi said. Soon after that, Peres called Agassi and urged him to make his lofty vision a reality.

Spurred by Peres’ encouragement, Agassi got to work. He quit his day job at software giant SAP and, in 2007, founded Better Place, which is based in Palo Alto, California. He raised $200 million, most of it from Idan Ofer, chairman of Israel’s largest holding company, Israel Corp. And Israel became its first customer. “We will have limited testing in Israel in 2009,” Agassi said. “By 2010 we will have 100,000 charge spots and be in full testing mode. We will be ready for the mass market by 2011.”

Today, Agassi says, Better Place is installing the first 1,000 charge spots in 50 parking lots in central Israel. The heavy lifting there still lies ahead.

Agassi is moving quickly. Julie Mullins, a Better Place spokeswoman, says he’s in talks with 25 countries around the world. He wants to expand in California beyond San Francisco, and is also looking at the U.S. east coast.

But could it be that Agassi is moving too fast? Better Place is getting people very excited, but it could be derailed by technology — or, rather, the absence of it.

Better Place
Shai Agassi
Agassi is drawing up timetables dependent on, at the very least, hundreds of thousands of EVs for his projects by 2012. Better Place isn’t going to make EVs itself, and it has a strong partner in Carlos Ghosn, CEO and president of the Renault-Nissan Alliance. But the automaker is working with Better Place only in selected markets, including Israel and Denmark (but not, at least yet, in Australia and San Francisco).

Simon Sproule, a Tokyo-based spokesman for Nissan, says the automaker is also working directly with other local and national governments to set up EV infrastructure without Better Place as a partner. It has announced independent projects with the states of Tennessee, Oregon and California and, on Nov. 22, with the sustainably minded government of Portugal (which gets 40 percent of its energy from wind, solar and hydroelectric).

“The partnership with Better Place is very strong, and it’s a fascinating business model,” Sproule said. “For some places it will work really well, but in other cities and countries we want to do our own thing.”

The plethora of announced projects — with many more likely to come — raises questions about whether automakers can meet a worldwide demand with large fleets of roadworthy EVs. With the possible exception of Renault and Nissan (which haven’t committed to firm production numbers) few established automakers, or the upstart independents challenging them, are talking about large volumes ready for showrooms in the next three years. Low gas prices, of course, are also likely to slow the rollouts. But Better Place doesn’t seem to be worried.

“The Renault-Nissan Alliance has committed to have cars for Israel and Denmark, and we are very confident that there will be EVs available in 2012,” says Mullins.

A big short-term challenge is developing the stable, inexpensive and long-range lithium-ion batteries that will power the EVs of the future. During the presidential campaign, Republican candidate John McCain talked of offering $300 million to the company that could come up with such technology, but prizes like that may not be necessary when the industry is wholly focused on finding just such a battery pack.

Another caveat concerns the battery-swapping concept. Better Place imagines an automated station similar to a car wash that can analyze

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whatever vehicle has pulled in, select the right battery pack from the wide variety in stock, and make a smooth swap in under three minutes. “Our engineers are hanging out in dark holes trying to figure out how that will work,” said Nissan’s Sproule. “An automotive battery is a big, heavy thing. It’s not like replacing the batteries in your torch [flashlight] or something like that.”

And finally, there’s the big question of raising the money. Agassi’s San Francisco venture, for instance, is dependent on Better Place itself raising $1 billion; the three cities participating are not major financial contributors. It’s not surprising, then, that local governments are enthusiastic.

“This could be one of the best economic stimulus packages this region will ever see,” said John Grubb, a spokesman for the Bay Area Council, a business group for the nine-county region. But renewable energy plans around the world are starved for capital in the current market.

Agassi is a fast talker with an impressive plan. As he offers a solution that could have a real impact on foreign oil dependence and global warming, he’s undoubtedly gotten the attention of governments around the world. He just may be developing what will be the first truly feasible, game-changing infrastructure alternative to fossil fuel. So if the technology cooperates and the investment money pours in, we may finally see the fulfillment of those futurist visions.

POSTED ON 22 Dec 2008 IN Business & Innovation Business & Innovation Energy Science & Technology Middle East North America North America 


Tesla Motors does not have "deep financial problems". They are producing and delivering Roadsters as fast as they can with the production facility in Hethel and a global network of suppliers. While they have delayed work on their Model S production facility until they can raise the hundreds of millions of dollars required, they have sufficient capital to continue operations, are currently making a profit on their OEM drivetrain business, and will cash-flow positive on Roadster sales once they clear the backlog of prepaid orders.

The PBP plan seems ludicrous to me, and I'm a big supporter of electric vehicles. I've been driving an EV for six months now and love it. I also have no need for charging stations. I have a RAV4-EV that has an 80 to 100 mile range. With that range, I haven't been range limited once in six months. The only charging station I need is a dryer outlet in my garage.

EVs aren't like gas cars, you don't have to go to a filling station when you get low on fuel. Just plug in at home.

Now, if you want to make a road trip, you need charging stations. If you're going to do that in some tiny neighborhood electric vehicle with a 40-mile range, then you'll need to stop often and you'll want it to be fast.

But if you're driving one of the electric vehicles that will soon be on the road with a highway range of 150 to 250 miles, then having a charging station every 100 miles along the freeway would be plenty. The US has about 42,000 miles of Interstate highways, so with 500 charging locations you could satisfy the needs of road-tripping EV drivers with charging opportunities every 100 miles or so.

The whole battery swapping thing imposes a huge design constraint on EV makers. Notice how PBP isn't making the cars, they expect someone else to solve the problem they are imposing with the battery swapping.

Modern lithium ion battery packs can be charged to 80% in 45 minutes. Would it really be so terrible to have to spend 45 minutes stretching your legs and getting something to eat after every three hours of driving?

It does not seem worth it to spends many billions of dollars creating hundreds of thousands of battery swapping locations before EVs are a measurable fraction of the cars on the road.

Maybe when 10% of the cars on the road are electric we will see if we really need that many charging stations. For now, I say put in 500 high-power charging stations along the Interstates and see what happens with EV sales.

I really don't want people to think every state needs to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure in order to support a significant number of EVs on the road. All we need for the next five years are a few high-power outlets in restaurant and hotel parking lots along the freeways.

Posted by Tom Saxton on 22 Dec 2008

"Modern lithium ion battery packs can be charged to 80% in 45 minutes. Would it really be so terrible to have to spend 45 minutes stretching your legs and getting something to eat after every three hours of driving? "

Actually it's not even that bad. While *traditional* li-ion, such as what Tesla uses, is limited to about 1 hour minimum charge times, phosphates and spinels can charge in 10 to 20 minutes, and titanates in 5 to 10.

Could someone kindly explain to me what's wrong with two hours of driving and then 5 to 20 minutes of charging? This is current tech (let alone what we'll have in 5-10 years); in what way is this inadequate?

I disagree that one charger every 100 miles is good enough; not all EVs are to have a 100 mile range (although most will), and you have to account for fast driving, rugged terrain, wrong directions and other factors that can limit range, as well as missed charging opportunities and non-interstate highways. Still, a few thousand fast chargers, at $40k to $120k a pop depending on the power output, should be enough to take care of the entire country until a large percentage of the population switches over. No unusual wiring requirements; just hook them up to the three phase input at any old rest stop, gas station, or what have you. Even at $120k a pop, that's about the per-pump cost of a typical gas station -- and, like with gas stations, the more you want to charge in any location, the lower the per-charger cost (shared battery banks). It'd be trivial to amortize the costs with any relevant amount of traffic, given how cheap you can buy power for.

This summer, assuming I have my Aptera 2e by then, I'm planning to drive it cross-country deliberately passing through some of the most desolate areas in the US *without* fast charge infrastructure. We already have an interrim solution: RV parks. There are over 600 powered RV parks along my route, most of which have 240V/50A circuits. That's no 5 minute charge, but it's certainly a lot faster than overnight. Pull up, enjoy a meal or a brief hike or relax in the pool or catch a catnap or use your laptop or whatnot, and then take off.

Posted by Rei on 22 Dec 2008

It is a bit of an exaggeration to say, "Electric vehicles (EVs) offered serious competition to gasoline cars and trucks at least until the 1920s. Henry Ford was fascinated with them, and collaborated with his close friend Thomas Edison on an ultimately unsuccessful plan to bring one to market."

In fact it was not Ford, an ethanol enthusiast, but utility magnate Samuel Insull, a former Edison lieutenant and subsequent poster child for holding companies, who foreshadowed Shai Agassi and tried to make a go of electric cars in the 1910s.

According to Harold Evans et al in "They Made America," Insull "kept in touch with Edison all these years and eagerly followed his painstaking development of a storage battery for electric runabouts and light trucks…. Insull tried for years to get Chicagoans enthused. He sank his own money into building garages where electric cars could be recharged. It was ideal business for a central station, recharging one car at profitable off-peak hours being equal to 20 residential customers."

Alas, what was ideal in theory was a failure in practice. But perhaps Insull should have kept trying. His subsequent career as a pyramid builder certainly didn't end well.

Posted by Jack Riggs on 22 Dec 2008

There is still one question: Who killed the electric car?


We had them before in the world and they were great. Where has that technique gone??

Adding chargers to some of the city parking meters could help promote EVs and help ensure that EV drivers find a charging station.
Posted by Franklin on 23 Dec 2008

Re the comments above: You Californian's are not the whole market. In most of the world, people don't have a 'dryer outlet in their garage'. In fact, in decent cities, people don't even have a garage. And people do not mostly want to stop for 45 minutes every time they run out of gas on a long trip (or if they didn't plan ahead and left themselves on empty). If you are serious about this, and don't just intend for this to be a solution for short-commute yuppies, you will need options. This is what Aggasi is offering.
Posted by on 24 Dec 2008

My question and comment is that most commutes are 100 miles and this is where most fuel is burned.Most could use this for most day-to-day driving, with an oil burner for long trips.

Posted by B Bruce on 26 Dec 2008

Electric cars won't make sense until oil gets up to $100/bbl and stays there. Even then, the quote of $6600/yr for 18,000 miles is excessive. Electricity is cheap (especially off-peak), and because it is mostly nuclear or coal, is not much affected by the price of oil. It's going to stay around $0.10/KWh, and less at night under time-of-day pricing. That would also solve the grid capacity problem, because capital-intensive electric generation makes for cheap night time power, and might be particularly advantageous for wind power that may peak at inconvenient times (weekends and nights).

It is a mistake to try to meet all needs with an electric car. Forget long road trips, taxis, rural areas etc. The market is the daily commuter, most of whom travel less than 15 miles each way. That is several million vehicles per year in the US, enough to support a large industry. It will begin in a large dense city where trips are short.

The roll-in, roll-out battery exchange (not intrinsically difficult) is a solution to the range problem that doesn't require any waiting. Because of the extra infrastructure, it would be more expensive than recharging at home at night.
Posted by Jonathan I. Katz on 28 Dec 2008

Customers killed the electric car.

When the car makers asked customers if they would like electric cars, 5000 replied yes. When the EV came to market only 500 of the original 5000 who said they wanted the cars, were willing to pay and take delivery.

Who killed the EV, we did, the customers
Posted by James on 03 Jan 2009

Electric cars are just not practical. Unless you have an alternate vehicle for longer trips it makes no sense to own one. This woud preclude 99% of the population from buying one.

The $100,000 Telsa is a great status symbol for people who want to be perceived as "green" while not being able to give up a lavish lifestyle. Hybrids and plug-ins are far more practical. Right now the extra cost factoring in low cost gas makes them poor choices. One can buy a comparable small compact car that gives very good gas mileage which makes far more sense.

Actually the energy and materails used to manufacture an electric car and actual attainable milage probably make it a poor ecological decision. However for trying to impress people with your righteous respect for all things green it really doesn't matter if it makes sense. It just makes you feel superior and that is the desired effect.
Posted by Dahun on 22 Mar 2009

Comments have been closed on this feature.
jim motavalliABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim Motavalli is a senior writer at E/The Environmental Magazine, a blogger for the New York Times and The Daily Green, and a syndicated auto columnist. His six books include Forward Drive: The Race to Build Clean Cars for the Future. In his last article for Yale e360, he wrote about making a push for cleaner, fuel-efficient technology a part of any Detroit bailout.



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