Interview: Electric car boss sees global change

January 27, 2011 By DAN PERRY , Associated Press
In this Monday, April 26, 2010 file photo, California-based electric-vehicle services provider Better Place Chief Executive Shai Agassi gets off an electric vehicle taxi during the opening ceremony of a battery switch station in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi, File)

(AP) -- Electric car pioneer Shai Agassi is a man with a startling prediction: Before 2020, he says, more people everywhere will be buying electric cars than those powered by gasoline.

"It doesn't mean that oil is not necessary, but we're starting the way out," said Agassi, a former top executive for information giant who launched his Better Place venture several years ago.

Existing electric cars have a limited range, after which owners have to stop and wait for hours while their car's battery recharges. Owners of Agassi's cars would be able to remove the used battery and replace it with a fully charged one, allowing them to get back on the road almost immediately.

The first country slated to go live with a network of "battery-switching" stations run by Better Place is his native Israel, where he plans a launch - with 56 stations and an expected 5,000 cars - before the end of 2011. In 2012, Denmark and Australia are expected to join, along with trials in Hawaii and in the San Francisco Bay area.

Brimming with infectious optimism, Agassi has been a regular at the World Economic Forum, where he was interviewed by The Associated Press.

Agassi said he has raised about $700 billion and spent about a third of it, mostly on setting up the stations. That leaves enough cash to absorb losses while he builds up to break-even, which Agassi asserts will not take long.

"In Israel, in 2016, plus or minus a year, more electric cars will be sold than gasoline cars. When that happens in Country One, within two years you will see it in every country," he said.

That claim may seem preposterous for the car-crazy United States - but not for Israel. The country's electric company also expects electric cars to achieve a significant in the near future and is preparing its grid to meet the demand, according to the Haaretz newspaper.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton has emerged a believer as well.

"Israel will become the first country in the world to put 100,000 all-electric cars on the road," he said Thursday. "Not the US. Not China. Not countries much bigger - Israel!"

Agassi has found a niche created by a widespread sense that the world is not doing half enough to deal with the eventual end of oil - a prospect hastened by the explosive recent growth in the developing world.

"From 2000 to 2010, China added 120 million cars on the road (and) next year, 25 to 30 million," Agassi said. "It's no longer the U.S. that sets the price (of oil). Now it's a question of how many cars were added in China, how many were added in Brazil, how many were added in India."

He admits that the market for gas is somewhat inelastic, meaning that despite rising costs at the pump, people grumble and drive on. But they save elsewhere, he says, harming the economy in cascading ways.

Agassi plans to sell cars being developed by Renault SA and equipped with removable batteries - which are currently quite heavy and have a range of 100 miles (160 kilometers). Drivers would be promised four battery swapping stations along any route the length of the range.

Although prices have not yet been set, Agassi said the idea would be that the consumer would not pay more to drive a given distance than its current cost using oil.

Like any venture that could threaten a mammoth industry, Better Place has generated its share of critics.

Some charge the company is trying to establish a new type of monopoly, while environmental groups objected to the laying of new power cables. It is also not clear that Israel's electricity grid can sustain the heightened demand posed by the .

Some say battery-swapping is impractical and customers will prefer a fixed-battery car. In Davos, Nissan Motor Co. was demonstrating its new Leaf, a fixed-battery electric car that you can charge at home.

Agassi is not worried. He says over time, batteries will grow smaller and their ranges will grow longer, making the swap less odious.

He is most animated as he refutes criticism that the electricity needed to charge the battery has its own carbon footprint and the net result might be worse for the environment than the internal combustion engine.

The electricity could come from coal but also from natural gas or wind or other sources, he said, adding that the Israeli government has approved a 600-megawatt solar project in the country's southern desert that can power a half-million cars a year.

Is the main thing idealism or profit? Agassi's message combines the two.

"The end of the oil era will not come because we ran out of oil - it will come become we don't want to use oil any more to drive," he said. "I can guarantee you that we will finish the need for oil as an energy source for cars before we run out of oil in the ground."

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3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 27, 2011
Does the car owner also own the battery?
If so, how can he be sure that when he sells the car that the last battery swapped in was a good one.

If Agassis' company owns the batteries, does the car owner pay for a set of batteries when he buys the car?
4 / 5 (4) Jan 27, 2011
Does the car owner also own the battery?
If so, how can he be sure that when he sells the car that the last battery swapped in was a good one.
How do you know that the transmission on a vehicle you're going to buy isn't complete junk?
If Agassis' company owns the batteries, does the car owner pay for a set of batteries when he buys the car?
If the utility company owns the box on the outside of your house, do you have to buy a box when you buy a house?
3 / 5 (1) Jan 27, 2011
It's not the same, the transmission is yours and is the age of the car. The car may be brand new, and have a 10 year old battery swapped into it.

Also the box on the side of the house may be 1/10000 the cost of the house, the battery may be 1/3 the price of the car.
5 / 5 (3) Jan 28, 2011
It's exactly the same, you can swap out stuff like transmissions and brakes in existing cars.
3 / 5 (2) Jan 28, 2011
The problem isn't really practicality, but the economic aspects. Batteries are going to be very expensive for at least a decade, which means that having more than one battery per car costs too much to make driving an electric car economically feasible. (except perhaps for the rich)

There are several issues:
1) liability: you can't give the customer a poorly performing battery.
2) service quality: how many stations serve batteries
3) service capacity: how many batteries does one station have.

From 1 follows that batteries must be scrapped earlier. From 2 and 3 follows that more batteries have to exist per car than necessary, because you need as much batteries per station as you can expect customers to arrive in the time you can recharge an empty battery. (Plus spares)

3 / 5 (2) Jan 28, 2011
The battery swapping scheme reduces the wear in terms of charge cycles on a battery since there are more batteries to do the same driving.

The issue then becomes the limited shelf-life of high energy density batteries, which means that you aren't doing as many miles per battery as you could before it has to be scrapped.

If a battery pack lasts for 100,000 miles or 6 years, you have to drive 16,000 miles per year, or 45 miles per day every single day to use it all up. Weekends included. If you have two packs, you'd have to drive 90 miles/d to use it all before the battery rots on you.

That's just a rough example, but it illustrates the problem. As you have more batteries per car, driving gets more expensive because you drive less miles per battery before they are scrapped, but still pay the full price.
not rated yet Jan 28, 2011

Also the box on the side of the house may be 1/10000 the cost of the house, the battery may be 1/3 the price of the car.

That figure is somewhat skewed by expensive "premium" cars. If you're talking about cars in general, the battery costs well over the price of an ordinary car.

Basic cars like the Dacia Logan may cost as little as €6000 new. For €10k you can get an entirely good basic car - or a barely adequate battery for an electric vehicle.
5 / 5 (2) Jan 28, 2011
I wonder if anyone brought up the same concerns when they figured cars were going to run on gasoline...

How many station could supply this liquid?
You mean they're going to have to bring the liquid on on massive trucks every week or else you don't get to drive?
How do you know you're getting a good quality liquid and not someone's watered down stuff?
Isn't gasoline explosive?(Yes it is)
What would happen to gasoline in a crash?

No one asks anyone about any of that with a gas car. Why do they ask it of an electric?
not rated yet Jan 28, 2011
Just can't let this pun go:

"Like any venture that could threaten a mammoth industry, Better Place has generated its share of critics.

Some CHARGE the company is trying to establish a new type of monopoly"
not rated yet Jan 28, 2011
I think this is a great idea. The infrastructure required is very large, though. Its not really any different than the system we have for Propane tanks here in America. The price would have to encompass the cost of the electricity, the cost of maintanance on the swap station, and the cost of replacing old batteries that are worn out. This seems like it would be considerably more expensive than charging the batteries and keeping them in the car. I feel that technology will render this system obsolete, as we will probably solve the slow charging problem before electric cars go mainstream. Hypercapacitors, anyone?
not rated yet Jan 30, 2011
Eclectic cars are going to happen. However, Agassi is in a niece because when batteries advance beyond a certain power density there will be little incentive to swap them. For instance if your car had 1000 mile range how many times would you swap its battery if it was convenient to keep it topped up.

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