Better Place Pops the Hood, Gears Up for All-or-Nothing Rollout

Automakers, by and large, are willing to accept the idea of charging infrastructure for plug-in vehicles. Those that have hopped onto the plug-in wave, such as General Motors with its extended-range electric Volt, and Nissan, which showed off an EV prototype in Tennessee earlier yesterday, say charge points are necessary to make plug-ins practical for the mass market. But battery swap stations — the crux of infrastructure startup Better Place’s scheme to push mass adoption of electric cars (and get a lucrative business out of it) — are a tougher pill for automakers to swallow, as we heard yesterday from Ford, Toyota and even fellow startup Fisker Automotive at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference this week.

better-place-prototype

But according to Sidney Goodman, Vice President of Automotive Alliances for Better Place (he works with automakers, battery vendors and other providers that the company needs on board to make its solution work at a large scale), skipping the battery exchange piece means forfeiting the mass market altogether. Speaking to a small group of reporters yesterday afternoon at the Better Place headquarters in Palo Alto, he said automakers — and Better Place itself — simply won’t be able to get enough scale to make electric cars viable unless drivers can pull into a station and top off in five minutes flat. That’s what we do with conventional vehicles at gas stations, and after considering several alternatives, Better Place decided battery swapping is the only way drivers will be able to stick with old habits and make a seamless switch to electric cars.

So, Better Place isn’t reserving basic charging infrastructure as a fall-back business — it’s all or nothing. As Goodman and sustainability strategy chief Sven Thesen explained yesterday, the “all” scenario includes subscription packages that include three types of charging services: A slow charge overnight and during the workday (managed by Better Place to tap variable energy sources like wind and reduce peak demand), a quick (45 minutes to an hour) charge when necessary, and then automated battery swapping for when drivers are on longer trips or in a big hurry. Goodman dismissed “fast charging” — juicing up in a matter of minutes — as impractical to deploy at mass scale with current technology.

As we’ve noted before, Better Place’s scheme represents a massive, expensive undertaking that’s peppered with hurdles, notably financing the buildout and getting automakers, utilities, governments, battery makers and consumers on the same page. But Better Place has already cleared a few. Besides winning over several national governments and U.S. states, Goodman said today that the company has produced 10 prototypes — cars that Better Place has independently converted  to electric — including a Renault sedan in Israel and a Nissan cross-over vehicle here in California (they popped the hood in Palo Alto today, pictured above).

Since its launch in October 2007, the company has grown to more than 100 full-time employees and “a few hundred” subcontractors, Goodman said. It has also installed 900 charge spots in Israel, the company’s “test bed,” where it’s working to smooth out the permitting process and shorten the amount of time it takes to complete an installation (minimizing the period when a private lot owner will have to be shut down). Next month, Better Place plans to unveil its first swap station in Yokohama, Japan.

Will they get all the automakers on board? Likely not, says Goodman. But he added that the company is, initially, only targeting the 30 percent of drivers with family sedans and long commutes — not city drivers and not low-riding sports-car drivers, in other words. That in itself helps narrow down the number of essential partners, as does the fact that some automakers simply “don’t believe in electrification,” just as some didn’t take the lead with hybrid technology. With hybrids, Goodman said, “you had those that sat back, some had leaders that did something, and some that sat on the fence. Each one had their own strategy.”

Goodman wouldn’t disclose which automakers Better Place has put at the top of the priority list, beyond its agreements with the Renault-Nissan Alliance for networks in Israel, Portugal and Denmark, or how many it needs to make the business model work, but for now, pre-commercial rollout, it’s in the single digits. If 10 automakers came on board all at once, he said “we probably wouldn’t be able to support them.” So, one down (Renault-Nissan), and a few left to go.

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