Imagine a world without oil dependency…sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? That’s what Shai Agassi thought when, as a World Economic Forum global young leader, he was asked in early 2000s, how he would propose making the world a better place by 2020.
Indeed Agassi was so inspired by the panel that not only did he leave his corporate job, where he was in line to become CEO of SAP, one of the largest software companies in the world, but he even named his start-up Better Place.
Coming from Israel, a country surrounded largely by unfriendly countries some of whom are oil rich, Agassi zeroing in on the oil question is not surprising. And coming from Israel, a country known for its entrepreneurship, it’s also not unsurprising that Agassi is the first person to make real headway into the viability of moving to electric cars, that is cars fueled by electric batteries instead of petroleum. While Agassi certainly wasn’t the first to introduce the ideas of electric cars, his company was the first to solve the primary issue of electric transportation – that of charging the battery.
The main goal is to get people to switch from traditional petroleum fueled vehicles to electric ones, but consumers will only make the switch if they feel the economic benefit and, more importantly, using an electric car is as convenient as driving is now. Only a very small percentage of drivers will make the switch out of ideological (specifically environmental) motivation. Another motivation is geopolitical, to end the West’s oil dependency on at best uncertain or at worst corrupt Middle Eastern governments. But at the end of the day, people are motivated by the pocket more than the brain.
And herein lies the obstacle: charging an electrical battery takes much longer than filling up a tank of gas. Agassi’s solution is straightforward and brilliant in its simplicity: battery switching. When a battery gets low on juice, the driver simply heads to a battery switching station (much like a filling station but resembling a car wash) where the empty or dying battery is switched out for a fully charged one. Meaning, your car isn’t purchased with one specific battery, instead you purchase electricity, or mileage, according to usage. This makes the actual car (to date Better Place has one model equipped with the battery switching technology – a Renault-Nissan sedan) less expensive to purchase. Plus, without a motor you’re looking at fewer repairs along the way.
Another obstacle is that the battery lasts only up to 100 miles, requiring a comprehensive network of battery switching stations to facilitate whatever journeys people may be planning. In a country as vast as the United States that certainly poses a problem. Just picture the drive from Denver to Vegas, with hundreds of miles of empty expanse. But Agassi shrugs it off and in fact Better Place is rolling out in Australia, in large part as a case study to convince the American market of the scheme’s viability. And confirmation came recently in the form of investment from American electricity conglomerate GE.
Better Place’s fleet and battery stations opened for business in Israel in 2011 and is this year rolling out in Denmark and, as previously mentioned, Australia. Next up is the Netherlands.
So are you convinced? Would you make the switch? As the IJN’s editorial this week points out, if we want to get tough on Iran, we need to accept the consequences of higher gas prices. But Agassi and Better Place offer a third option. Forget petroleum altogether! It’s a triple win – economically, environmentally and politically.