Blog Post

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 (s GM) with its extended-range electric Volt, and Nissan (s NSANY), 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 (s F), Toyota (s TM) and even fellow startup Fisker Automotive at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference this week.


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 convertedĀ  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.

10 Responses to “Better Place Pops the Hood, Gears Up for All-or-Nothing Rollout”

  1. I was talking about using compressed air ONLY for recharging on-board batteries when they run out low on juice. In other words, in place of the gas-run engine to run a generator in a Plug-in EV.
    Doesn’t that come across in my first comment? People seem to be responding by comparing an EV to a compressed air vehicle. Not what I had in mind.

  2. Wow, a nice dose of Reality!

    Solar PV is probably $5.00 per watt installed, so something able to charge 8 kw-hrs/day would be about 1kW or about $5000. To displace about $1 of electricity per day. Call it $2 to account for the carbon improvement. Even so, that’s 2500 days to pay for itself.

    As for the entropy in compressed air, etc., you aren’t really comparing apples with apples. Compressed air is a stored energy source (a ‘fuel’, if you will) and as such is considerably more convenient than the un-stored electricity powering the electric motor. Unless you have an extension cord, that too has to be stored somewhere, like a battery or whatever. The round-trip efficiency of charging/discharging a battery might be better than air compression, but the battery is more expensive than the compressed air tank. So the calculation is a bit more complex.

    Overall, any energy storage from renewable sources, be it via batteries, compressed air, or even hydrogen, is ungodly expensive compared with present day gasoline prices. These costs are best mitigated by PHEV technology, which uses a small amount of stored renewable energy to do short drives, but uses the density of fossil fuels to provde the range needed by the consumer.

  3. Reality

    James, I’d love to see you cost out $$ the number of kW of solar PV capacity you’d need to charge your vehicle everyday (which by the way you’d have to charge during the day unless you plan on buying multiple expensive batteries to swap out.)

    As for compressed air, the entropy losses on this are ridiculous. They are 15% efficient vs 90% for an electric motor. With your carport idea you are going photons-to-DC to-compressor-to-mechanical energy in a custom car that runs on air. c’mon.. And look at how shrimpy and slow these things are

    Compare this to the $0.08 (or less) a kWh you’d get charging your EV or PHEV car with grid electricity at night. Solar carport? , get real.. It is economically unrealistic misdirection like yours that is eating away at the progress we are making educating America through this important transition.

  4. I agree with James above. And if you don’t care to even use E85 fuel, why not use compressed air? Then you don’t need to worry about unused fuel sitting in a tank for possibly a month or more when you are not taking any longer range trips. I read that fuel sitting in a tank could pose a problem. Carbon fiber tanks are safe and will not explode on impact- they just split open and release the air. And you can get air at any gas station currently (whether the pressure is sufficient, I don’t know).
    Does anyone know how this idea would work out? Since they have developed cars that run solely on compressed air, I would think just running a generator would work very well.

  5. I’ve been against Better Place from the start. No thanks to shackling my car to yet another corporate entity. I plan to build a solar carport for my car and be done with both the oil and power companies. If I have to tap the grid occasionally, so be it, but let’s cut off giant conglomerates trying to control our future.

  6. Sidney Goodmen’s logic is flawed. If the vehicle is a plug-in hybrid, and the owner has a charge station at home, then typically, the vehicle would get charged at home for the daily miles driven and there would be no need to go to a fueling station AT ALL.

    Perhaps PBP is supported by the gas station lobby, to find a reason to stop and buy that soda or bag of chips.

    GM has long understood that visiting a service station is a hated experience for drivers, and one that drivers wish to avoid. PHEVs would reduce these visits. Battery change stations seek to extend it.

    The plain truth is that without the battery change stations, BPB is really nothing at all; just a company seeking to socialize and control a fueling strategy with no net benefit to the consumer. PHEVs accomplish everything BPB seeks to do with lower cost, and less social control. Run them (the PHEVs) on E85 if you wish if you are concerned about gasoline usage.

  7. Better Place is in a difficult position – their solution is too expensive and too impractical. Even the only Auto Manufacturer that’s working with them, Nissan, has been signing agreements with ECOtality – a manufacturer of EV fast-chargers.