Shai Agassi: One-on-One
By EV World
"It's nothing but a scam."
"His business model of battery swapping stations is fatally flawed."
"The business plan is in Hebrew so no one can read it."
"Battery technology just isn't ready for this."
"His scheme will over-stretch already fragile electric power grids."
Shai Agassi -- the Israeli-born American behind Project Better Place -- has heard it all. His biggest challenge isn't technological -- he has the world's largest auto alliance, Renault Nissan, developing the cars and batteries for his scheme. His biggest obstacle is the skepticism his plan elicits everywhere he goes, including even here on EV World (See all the reader comments on Mr. Disruptor: Shai Agassi's Electric Car Plan).
Some of the criticism are based solely on misinformation, some on reasoned engineering concerns. And without question the plan clearly is not only bold and innovative, but also harbors its share of inherent risks. Still, $200 million dollars in investment capital -- and, as he points out in this exclusive EV World interview, the additional debt equity he's raising in both Israel and Denmark -- is enough to move his vision off the drawing board and onto the streets of Tel Aviv and Copenhagen.
For Agassi, who was the managerial heir apparent of software giant SAP until he had is epiphany, not on the road to Damascus, but on the road to Davos (the 2004 World Economic Forum), Project Better Place is his vision of how to solve the classic "chicken and egg" dilemma confronting all new technology. There won't be electric cars until someone builds an accessible, public charging infrastructure -- including the ability to quickly, conveniently and easily swap batteries -- and there won't be that infrastructure without electric cars.
So, as we jest in the interview, he decided to start with the egg first -- about 500,000 of them -- beginning in Israel, his birthplace. That decision -- controversial though it may seem -- in fact has launched the Renault Nissan Alliance (along with NEC through their new battery joint venture, AESC) to move into high gear to develop a range of electric vehicles -- all with swappable batteries -- that will debut in small numbers in 2010 and be in mass production by 2012.
The catalyst for Project Better Place was a challenge posed at Davos in 2004 to come up with ideas that would make the world a "better place" by 2020. He and a fellow member of the Young Global Leaders group, which is a part of the World Economic Forum, brainstormed for ways to answer this challenge, settling on the world's need to transition away from its dependence on petroleum, in general, and gasoline, specifically. Electric cars seemed the ideal way to achieve this objective if a way could be found to solve the "chicken v egg" conundrum.
As you'll learn when you listen to this 34-minute interview, Agassi has given a great deal of thought to the challenges his concept poses. He tells EV World that he spent many, many nights researching the subject -- and if you'll listen to the end of the conversation, you'll find out where much of that research began -- while developing his innovative cellphone-like business model that owns the infrastructure and the batteries in the cars. (For more information on his model see the Mr. Disruptor article above.)
You can listen to the one-on-one discussion with Agassi using either of the two MP3 players above, or by downloading the 7.9MB file to your computer for transfer to your favorite MP3 devise. Please also note that Mr. Agassi has offered to do a Q&A session with EV World readers and we are hoping to arrange that at some point in the near future. If you have specific questions for him please send them to the EDITOR@EVWORLD.COM. We will pass them along to him, but before you do, take time to listen to the compete interview. Many of your questions may already have been answered.
Regardless of whether or not you think Agassi's model will work, you have to give him credit for trying. Recall that the very first fax machine or cellphone was totally useless. To be of value, a network of devices had to be built to make the concept workable. Agassi is just taking that reality and scaling it up to something larger, and if he can pull it all together, he will definitely have made the world a better place, one less dependent on oil and the problems it creates.