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2012-05-22 09:21

BETTER PLACE FOR RENAULT: Shai Agassi's Better Place uses a fleet of Renault Fluence ZEs and has plans to expand to other countries during 2012.

Amy Teibel

ROSH HAAYIN, Israel - Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi has begun rolling out the world's first nationwide electric car network. Now, will the drivers come?

After more than $400-million (R3.288-million) in outlays and months behind schedule, dozens of electric cars have hit the roads in Israel, the test site Agassi chose for his Better Place venture. Four stations where the cars can get a new dose of juice when their batteries run down are operating and the plan is to ramp up that number within months.

The concept: To wean the world off oil and eliminate the biggest hurdles to environmentally friendly electric cars - high cost and limited range.


To do this, Better Place has jettisoned the fixed battery. Instead, drivers can swOp their depleted battery for a fully charged one at a network of stations and in five minutes be good for another 160km. Better Place owns the batteries, bringing down the purchase price of the cars using the network.

People driving shorter distances - most users - can plug-in their battery each day to chargers installed at their home or office ar at public locations to recharge in six to eight hours.

Agassi is facing a wall of scepticism. A major concern is "range anxiety": will the car conk out because its battery is drained, stranding the driver in a dicey neighborhood, en route to hospital, or with three wailing children in the back?

Rising fuel prices worldwide still haven't sent electric car sales surging, noted US-based automotive expert John McElroy. "It may not be an energy price issue," he said. "Consumers may simply decide that electric cars don't offer the range they need."

Agassi, a former top executive at software giant SAP AG, said he was ready to prove his doubters wrong. "We're driving a car that most people said would be a fantasy," he said.

The sw0ppable battery model aims to reassure drivers about range and show they don't need to sacrifice convenience or cash to switch to electric.


So far, the four Better Place battery stations cover central and northern Israel. During the second half of 2012 around 40 stations should be on line, countrywide. But even before that, the company says, enough will be up that a motorist could make the 500km drive from Israel's northern tip to its southern end.

Agassi has raised $750-million from investors, among them General Electric and HSBC, since founding Better Place more than four years ago. Renault has begun selling the Fluence, customised to use the Israeli stations, at a price comparable those of other sedans. About 140 are on the road, most of them being driven by Better Place employees.

Compared to electric or hybrid cars in other markets, sales in this nation of nearly eight-million people might not be as humble as they appear: Chevrolet, in 2011, sold about 7700 Volts and Nissan nearly 10 000 Leafs in the US, which has a population of more than 310-million.

Better Place, which had promised to have thousands of cars on the road in 2011, acknowledges the roll-out was behind schedule, mostly due to bureaucratic hurdles and Renault production issues. Better Place has also spent years testing its integrated system designed to allow its operation centre, which is connected to every car, to monitor the vehicles and correct problems remotely.

For instance, its software notifies drivers when their batteries are running low and directs them to the nearest fresh-battery station.

Israel was chosen for the experiment in part because of its tech-savvy population. Also, with 80% of the population living in a narrow, densely populated stretch along the Mediterranean coast, it provides a perfect laboratory for the charging network.

Better Place claims it can cut as much as 20% off the annual cost of owning a car, especially if fuel prices continue to rise. Drivers buy access to the switching stations and charging spots through a monthly package ranging from under $300 (R2400) to more than $500 (R4110), depending on mileage.


Israelis are taking notice. Better Place says more than 80 000 people have trekked to its visitors' centre at an abandoned oil reserves depot outside Tel Aviv.

What happens in Israel could decide how broadly Better Place deploys. So far the Fluence is the only model compatible with the grid, but Renault's Middle East director, Jean-Christophe Pierson, says the company is considering a more compact model. Better Place is also in contact with other automakers.

Denmark is set to become Better Place's second launch country later in 2012. Australia is to become its first major market, with deployment in the capital, Canberra, also in 2012. Small-scale projects are in place in Hawaii and California. Amsterdam is the next European target after Denmark.

The company also has its sights set on China, where it has opened a demonstration battery-switching station.

Agassi sees the tipping point for battery cars coming in two to three years, propelled by dropping prices of cars and batteries. By 2017, he expects 50% of all new car sales in Israel to be electric.

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