How will Shai Agassi's heralded battery exchange system for electric cars stack up against the next generation of plug-in hybrids?
Not long ago, the electric car was dead. America's EV (electric vehicle) stock was being unceremoniously yanked off the market. Early adopters were outraged. Car makers were tight lipped. A filmmaker was running an autopsy. Yet today, auto blogs and environmental columnists alike are abuzz with news of the electric "car of the future": the Tesla Roadster, the Chevy Volt, the next gen plug-in Prius, even China's BYG BYD. As interest and hope for a plugged-in future surge, the unrivaled media darling of the automotive minute is without question the California startup Better Place. It's no accident-there's no other project quite like it.Here's how Better Place is supposed to work: You buy one of their 100 percent electric sedans for a deep discount-maybe even drive it home for free. They don't want to make money off the car, just on the electricity you use to run it, which you'll get from one of Better Place's charging stations. They'll be in parking garages, on streets, at shopping centers and malls, and at gas stations that decide to play along. They'll even install in your driveway or garage for free.The car will run about 100 miles on a fully charged battery. If you're on a longer trip and can't wait to recharge, you can pull into a battery changing station and swap out the battery itself-in about three minutes-for a fully charged replacement. This last bit is what really distinguishes Better Place. You own the car, but not the battery.Better Place founder Shai Agassi likens it to the cell phone business: you pay very little for the phone itself, but you're buying talk time on their network. Here you get a car for cheap (or nothing) and pay to plug into the grid. "Now you're buying miles, not minutes," the Better Place website explains.Agassi's a software guy-he was climbing the management ladder at SAP before he caught the EV bug-and the Better Place system works on a program called AutOS. An onboard PC monitors the battery, and uses a GPS unit to help steer you to the nearest vacant charging or exchange station. Agassi sees the Better Place batteries as part and parcel of a larger smart grid-AutOS is intelligent enough to pull a charge in off-peak hours when electricity is cheapest, and the distributed bank of batteries can help store electricity and feed the grid when demand is high and the car isn't soon to be driven.Agassi's an easy guy to root for. He's got an unbridled optimism that's all too rare in the energy world, and his intentions are clearly noble. When a Wired reporter asked him if he was worried about a competitor possibly stealing his idea, he shot back, "The mission is to end oil, not create a company." It's tough to bet against that kind of attitude, and Better Place already has commitments to launch at least five pilot projects-in Israel, Denmark, southeastern Australia, the San Francisco Bay area, and Ontario. But digging deeper into the Better Place plans, I can't help but wonder if it's really the best solution.There are a few obvious problems. Consumer choice is one: Drivers want to pick a car that's right for them, and for a long time Better Place customers are going to have a very limited showroom to choose from. (One of the Hawaii governor's biggest concerns when considering the program was whether it would offer convertibles.)Another clear concern is the placement of the exchange stations. The obvious location, and the one that Agassi proposes, is the existing network of gas stations. But gas stations, at least in this country, don't have a lot of room to spare for a service that many shortsighted owners will see as nothing more than a threat to their main business-selling gasoline.But it's also troubling that Better Place vehicles are, by design, unable to be charged from normal electrical outlets. That's how past EV systems have worked, and that's how the most promising models in the pipeline are drawn up.Ultimately, I think, Better Place is going to have a hard time proving itself superior to a widespread fleet of plug-in hybrids. We're less than two years away from plug-ins that will run entirely on an electric charge for about 40 miles, before tapping into the reserve fuel tanks (eventually filled, I hope, with advanced, next-generation biofuels). The vast majority of American drives are within that 40-mile range. Department of Transportation data tells us that a 40-mile range would reduce commuter gasoline requirements by 94 percent (and 97 percent if drivers are able to charge up at work). What's more-almost any passenger vehicle, from the tiniest MINI to the soccer mom's minivan to the beefiest pickup -can be pretty easily manufactured as an electrified plug-in hybrid.To be sure, Better Place is something of a brilliant innovation and the gleaming accolades-Wired cover stories, Times articles, widely-heralded TED talks -are well deserved. And it's easy to imagine Better Place redefining personal mobility in certain specific geographical settings. Israel-essentially an island, bordered on one side by water and everywhere else by enemies, where you can't drive for more than 250 miles in any direction-is perfect. Hawaii too. But will Better Place be able to beat out the plug-in hybrid, which most experts are calling the certain "car of the future," for mass adoption? My guess is that my next car will be plugging into a plain old outlet, and I'll own the battery.A version of this piece appeared on page 70 of GOOD 015: The Transportation Issue.