Monday, January 21, 2008

Government, Renault and Agassi: Making Israel a Better Place for Electric Cars

Shai Agassi's ambitious Project Better Place takes a step forward today in Israel. The government will announce its support for the venture which has been developing between Agassi and Renault to bring electric cars to the virtual island that is Israel. Carlos Ghosn, chairman of Nissan and Renault will participate in the announcement.

As I have commented before, there is no better proving grounds for EVs than Israel. No oil. Lots of cars but no great distance to travel. Intellectual and financial resources aplenty.

Agassi's project focussing on the infrastructure side with its talk of charging points and battery swapping has long struck me as interesting, well-intended, but suffering from some misconceptions endemic to those who think about this stuff but don't drive an electric car.

I've long believed the problem is lack of cars not "fuel." My first electric car was a 50 mile range 57 mph top speed Th!nk City. Not quite a real car in the conception of the average American. Not what I wanted for my next car in 2001. But I gave it a shot as by then the automakers were no longer making available the better EVs I'd come to covet. I came to realize my little Th!nk had its considerable benefits and limitations. But the problem was certainly not availability of "fuel." Electricity is ubiquitous. Even 220 volt power in a 110v world was obtainable tapping in to friends' dryer outlets.

Raising a couple of hundred million dollars not to build electric cars struck me as peculiar. But the plan is becoming clearer as at least one car maker appears to be buying in. As reported in the NY Times today here:
The idea, said Shai Agassi, 39, the software entrepreneur behind the new company, is to sell electric car transportation on the model of the cellphone. Purchasers get subsidized hardware — the car — and pay a monthly fee for expected mileage, like minutes on a cellphone plan....Renault and Nissan will provide the cars.....Mr. Agassi’s company, Project Better Place of Palo Alto, Calif., will provide the lithium-ion batteries, which will be able to go 124 miles per charge, and the infrastructure necessary to keep the cars going — whether parking meter-like plugs on city streets or service stations along highways....
Where these batteries will come from hasn't been announced. But certainly if the energy storage isn't the responsibility of the automaker, the car becomes quite affordable. If Agassi has a better place to get batteries, and can leverage the investments into a profitable financing scheme for the energy, he could be on to something.

Jerusalem Post report here.

Financial Times report here.