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Project Better Place Gives Details: GPS, Cell-phone Plans and Speedy Battery Exchange

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Shai Agassi, who turned 40 this weekend, gave some new details about his plans to build infrastructure for the world’s electric vehicles at the Fortune Green conference on Monday. He detailed his startup’s subscription plans, which will mirror cell phone services (noting MetroPCS, prepaid plans, and rollover miles); described a GPS system that will guide cars to open charging stations; and said the company’s battery exchange system would look like a car wash and take less time to use than it takes to pump gas.

Agassi, formerly No. 2 at SAP, has been rapidly unfolding his plan to build an electric car-charging and battery exchange network country-by-country in an attempt to kick the world’s oil addiction and generate revenues for Project Better Place and its long list of investors. When Agassi began publicly speaking about the project last year, it all seemed like a bit like a pipe dream, with unimaginable (and perhaps insurmountable) capital costs.

But with Israel and Denmark signing on, and after hearing Agassi’s more detailed descriptions here today, it’s looking like yes, Project Better Place, one of the most audacious and well-funded business plans in cleantech, is actually going forward. OK, what’s it going to look like?

Agassi says Project Better place will build what will feel like “an infinite number of charging points” (actually more like 500,000) in Israel that will “connect the last foot of the electric grid to the last foot of the parking grid.” He said there will be four main spots for the charging stations: work, home, downtown and retail.

The system will be connected to a smart back-end and the power grid, so the network can coordinate on smart charging. And the network will use GPS to point the driver to open stations where drivers can park and charge the cars while out and about on local trips. (Google has been discovering the same GPS benefits). Having an all-seeing eye telling you where to easily park your car would be awesome, even without the green aspect.

In addition to the charging stations, Agassi said Project Better Place will build battery exchange spots, for when a driver wants to drive over 100 miles. Nobody wants to stop and charge for a long trip, he explained. And the exchange system will take “less time than you take to fill up your car.”

You come in, your battery comes out, a new full battery comes in, and you keep driving — Shai Agassi.

Agassi also gave more details on how Project Better Place will sell its service and mimic cell-phone plans. First off, the consumer will buy the car, which will be similar to or below the cost of a traditional car — the electric car in Israel will be half the price of a normal gasoline car, and in Denmark could be as low as $20,000, he said.

Then he named three different possible subscription plans:

  • The Prepaid card model: The EV car owner could buy, say, 300 miles in advance and ‘pay as you go.’
  • The Rollover Plan model: Under this plan the consumer could buy a certain amount of packaged miles every month, and take the miles and move them from one month to the next. It’s like cell phone’s “rollover” minutes, but Agassi quipped that rollover miles might not be the best name for the car industry. Agassi said that if a car owner bought 1,000 miles, Project Better Place would guarantee the price, and focus groups have found that the average time people might want that plan is 3.5 years.
  • The MetroPCS plan: The way MetroPCS offers something like $75 per month, and you can drive as much as you want and have as many drivers as you want. Like the one-rate, all-you-can-eat-plan. Agassi says if consumers sign up for that plan for a fixed amount of time, maybe six years in Israel, they’ll give away the car for free.

Alright, so these are some of the new details. Who’d have thought the broadband industry, cell phones, and GPS would have such a big design factor?

11 Responses to “Project Better Place Gives Details: GPS, Cell-phone Plans and Speedy Battery Exchange”

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  2. I don’t understand the Deutsche Bank numbers. They say 7 cents per mile.

    Let’s assume the pack is good for 2000 charges. A car like a Prius needs about 400 W-hrs to go a mile (more if you are going fast, but let’s call it 400 W-hrs or 0.4 kW-hr). Since the battery is charged once, you need to pro-rate 1/2000 of the cost of the battery for the use of the electricity. Electricity itself, at 10 cents/per kW-hr, would be about 4 cents (I’ll throw in the charger for free, and also assume its 100% efficient.) That leave 3 cents for the battery. With 2000 charges, that equates to $150/kW-hr for the battery pack.

    That’s at least a factor of 4 higher than what can be purchased today with NiMH. Lithium ions are much more expensive.

    And that includes no money for all the swapping stations, etc.

    The numbers don’t seem to work for me.

  3. Just because Israel and Denmark have signed up doesn’t mean it makes sense. A lot of countries signed up for the Hydrogen Economy, which also made no sense.

    Canyon is basically right; the main expense is in the batteries, which I don’t think will fare any better being shuffled around from car to car. Even with a battery pack carefully tuned for the car used, with in-place cooling systems, etc. you still pay a lot for each charge, when pro-rating the 2,000 charge lifetime of the battery. About $4/gallon equivalent at today’s battery prices. This system doesn’t get around that.

    Compare this with a PHEV that gets 20 or so miles all-electric and then can use a renewable fuel such as biomethane to provide range. Even if the fuel costs are high, the overall cost of use of the vehicle is reasonable. And the infrastructure? A few new kinds of fuel pumps — not warehouses of battery packs and all the hardware and depots for exchanging them.

    I always wondered how such exchange networks could insure quality control of the battery packs being exchanged in. Plus the standardization needed will require only 1 kind of battery pack and thus really only one kind of vehicle. Again, compare with a PHEV, which has no such limitations.

    I won’t go so far to say it’s a con, but it is a really stupid idea.

  4. I have a feeling that Shai might respond to your comment that his company “looks very much like a con.”
    Aside from your personal attacks, your point that batteries make “electric cars economic oxymorons,” is itself an oxymoron because products are not on the market that are not economical for at least somebody, typically the buyer & the seller at the same time. And Project Better Place, Nissan, Renault and their partners would not embark on this project if the car was not economical. What are you even talking about?

    Despite your uneducated criticisms and uneccessary attacks to Israel and Denmark being “desperate populations”, it WILL be implemented. Shaiis a man of action, and has other men of action to create and sell this product.

  5. Jim canyon

    Agassi’s plan will never fly – better batteries within the next few years from BYD and EEStor will make his high cost plan obsolete. Agassi’s main stupidity is in devising a scheme that increases the costs of the one component that makes electric cars economic
    oxymorons : the cost of the batteries. It looks very much like a con. Regardless, it will never be implemented – technology is moving past the bandaid, nonsensical approach offered by Agassi to the world’s most desperate populations (Israel and Denmark)