Making a Better Place

With the cost of a barrel of oil dipping below $40 a few weeks ago (recall this summer’s price of $140), imagining a post-oil future may not be on everyone's mind .  This is not the case for venture-backed  Better Place and its partners.  Since 2007, Better Place, led by founder and CEO Shai Agassi, has been working to design and deliver a strategy to transform transportation infrastructure from oil-based to renewable energy sources thereby reducing harmful emissions.

The goal for the project is not about familiar half-measures such as hybrid or flex-fuel cars.  Instead, the plan calls for the complete decommissioning of the combustion engine in favor of a fully electric solution.

Embracing the electric car on its own doesn’t make for an original insight.  In fact electric cars have occupied our technological horizon since the beginning of the twentieth century.  Then, as now, the limiting factor in leveraging the opportunities of the electric car has remained the same – battery life.

Agassi’s plan is different in that he dismissed the shortcomings of battery life as a reality and instead reformulated the entire automotive model. His plan separates the battery from the car and views automotive transportation as a service instead of a good.

The Better Place zero-emission vehicle system needs three things for optimal performance:  charging spots, battery switching stations, and software to automate the entire experience.

Charging spots, located everywhere you can park your car, will ensure that cars are always equipped with enough juice for 100 miles of travel.  For longer trips, roadside battery switching stations allow you to swap your depleted battery for a fully charged one.  The swap is fully automated – drivers pull in and out without leaving their cars in less time than it takes to fill your tank today.

What makes this all work is the innovative hybridization of the automotive and mobile phone industries.   You currently have a phone that you may have bought outright or chosen to take advantage of a discounted price by making a commitment via a contract.  Once you have the phone, you choose how you want to use it: unlimited minutes, maximum minutes, or pay-as-you-go.  Substitute phone with car and minutes with mileage and you have the Better Place model.

The Better Place electric car network is becoming a reality.  Renault and Nissan have partnered to develop cars to meet the requirements of the plan.  Israel has also committed and promises a nation-wide infrastructure to be in place by 2011.  Israel is thought to be an ideal test ground because it is geographically small with all of its major urban centers less than 150km apart.  As a result 90% of car owners drive less than 70km each day.  Denmark is the next adopter. While similar geographic properties make Denmark another ideal early adopter, the extreme cold climate offers additional challenges.  Other markets planning to go online include Australia, California, and Hawaii.

Better Place has effectively decoupled the issues of energy source and transportation. This open-source model allows for innovations in renewable energies to continue and the electric car network to grow in parallel.  In fact, introducing millions of batteries capable of storing the fluctuating output of energy derived from renewable sources (think solar and wind) only reinforces and strengthens the opportunities of a sustainable future.

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