The Smartest Car on the Block
Better Place's Shai Agassi today swaggered onto a rather small stage at the bi-annual Frankfurt motor show, saying "this may be one of the smallest exhibition stands, but it's probably the most important one!"
Agassi probably allowed himself a display of over-confidence because he had plenty of significant good news to convey. First of all, he announced his company had ordered 100,000 units of the Renault Fluence, a small family sedan which had been unveiled minutes before at Renault's neighboring stand. This order, said Agassi, was historic: it made the Fluence the single best-selling electric car since Henry Ford's model T ended the reign of the electric car and began the oil age, in 1908.
The Fluences will be offered in Better Place's primary markets in Israel, Denmark and Australia, as only one element in Better Place's "end-to-end mobility solution".
(Better Place is basically about providing stations where you can change your electric vehicle's batteries with a so-called "Quickdrop" system within minutes, instead of waiting for hours for your batteries to re-charge).
Agassi waxed enthusiastic about other elements of his "ecosystem of mobility". Better Place will install in the Fluence the first "real" automotive computer, consisting of an Intel Atom CPU and an online connection to Microsoft's .Net. In Frankfurt, they showed simulations of what that will entail. Going for a spontaneous cup of coffee? Your car will show you which Starbucks has electric chargers in the parking lot, for a quick battery refresh. Your mother calls your mobile phone, and you decide to take a long detour on the way home from the office? The Fluence will tell you exactly which route to drive to ensure you reach a Better Place battery exchange station, before you run out of electricity.
The heavy-duty IT will also allow the electricity grid to phase-in re-charges, so that there will be no bottlenecks even when millions of people plug in their cars at 5 PM (after getting home) or 8 AM (upon arriving at the office). So even if Agassi's forecast of 50% market share for EV's by 2020 materializes, the grid will be able to cope.
Other Better Place news from Frankfurt:
* Agassi has ordered 100,000 charge-point units from Flextronics, a well-known equipment maker, for installment at various locations in Denmark, Israel and Australia, in 2011.
* Continental, a German auto supplier, will be developing major elements of the "mobility ecosystem".
* TÜV Rheinland, a German testing and certification association, is developing a safety standard for the whole Better Place system.
After Agassi's press conference, I utilized the opportunity for a quick interview. Here's how John Proctor, a personable spokesman for Better Place, kindly answered my questions.
Q: "I was at a electromobility conference in Zurich a few weeks ago. The guys there were not so enthusiastic about Better Place, to be quite honest. The majority opinion is that battery technology is evolving so quickly, that Better Place is installing a massively expensive infrastructure that will be unneeded in a few short years."
Proctor: "Well, what's good enough? Is 200 miles enough range? 400 miles? What we are providing is a solution that gives you unlimited range, so that you never have to worry about your batteries' capacity. And you never need any gasoline, and never cause any tailpipe emissions - in contrast to hybrid solutions."
Q: "Another thing the Better Place - sceptics say is that you won't be able to get a standard format for automotive batteries -- that this is too early in their development. So your changing stations will only work with Renault-Nissan cars. If there will be 20 different kinds of batteries installed in cars, your changing stations won't ever achieve critical mass".
Proctor: "Batteries will evolve; at some point I see a standard "pancake" - format for batteries which will be flat and enable a low center of gravity in cars. But until then, isn't it a great advantage if batteries are exchangeable? Isn't it much better when the consumer keeps his cars, but gets constantly evolving battery technology? That's what we aim to provide."
Reported By Martin Schwoerer
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