Ask An Expert

Electric Cars0

Steven Ashley | Mon Sep 12 2011 |

Can battery switching make electric vehicles more practical for a wider range of drivers?

Shai AgassiShai Agassi, Founder and Chief Executive of Better Place, answers questions on how Better Place is changing the face of the average EV user.

Tweet #shaiagassi or comment to send your question to Shai. Look for Shai’s responses in the Green Room next week.


What is the basic business premise of Better Place?

Better Place‘s mission is to create an alternative to oil for powering cars. We ended up doing so by using electric vehicles that are a bit different than those developed by the rest of the automotive industry. We created a network that allows people to charge their cars both at home and at work like they do with any electric car, but also allows them to switch batteries while on the road to enable them to travel longer distances than a single battery would normally allow them to go using just day-to-day charging.


Who is Better Place’s target consumer?

Interestingly enough, our target consumer is very different from the normal electric vehicle (EV) consumer. Everybody in the auto industry focuses on people who drive EVs short distances in an urban setting. We actually see our key customer as a suburban or exurban driver who drives in the range of 15,000 to 20,000 miles a year, not 6,000 to 8,000 miles per year, which is the classic definition of what a typical EV driver would drive.


What is the specific deal for the individual Better Place customer?

You buy a car and you own the car. Effectively, the saying in the car market is you want to get a Camry for the price of a Corolla—a higher-end car for the price of an entry-level car. And that’s what we’re offering in our first markets, Israel and Denmark. You then pay for your driving miles in a similar cost structure as you would when you pay for gasoline in your country.


What will the driver experience during a typical travel scenario that involves both battery recharging and switching?

Every morning, every day, your battery is full, because you recharged at home overnight and you recharged at work. With that you can go about 100 miles without recharging. Then, if you’re going on a random, long-distance trip, say, from Manhattan to Montauk for the weekend (about 115 miles), you’ll have to switch the battery once along the way. That means you’ll need to stop at a switch station for about three and a half minutes.


What happens to the used battery at the switch station?

The used battery is removed from below by a robot arm and an automated storage system places it in a rack. We then push a lot of cold air into the battery to cool it and recharge it at a faster rate. In about 45 minutes it is fully recharged and ready to go. Our system network meanwhile monitors the performance and the lifecycle of each battery, and even matches its performance profile to the driver who can best use it. The system ensures that there is always a charged battery for every customer who drives in.


What is Better Place doing for the recharging side of the program?

We install chargers at home and also at work. The idea is to take away all the anxiety that might arise from trying to figure out how to get the electricity into the car. We manage the chargers over time, monitoring them from a network operating center. For example, if you plug in and for some reason are not charged up, say, because the power in your garage went down, we will alert you.


What are the main components of Better Place’s network?

Well, first there is the electric car. In the initial programs, Renault is supplying its Fluence Z.E., which is a high-end sedan with an electric power plant that is comparable to a 2.5-liter gasoline engine. The battery is a lithium-ion, 24 kilowatt-hour pack from NEC-Nissan that weighs from 250 to 300 kilograms. The chargers include home units, workplace units, and public chargers that can accommodate electric cars that are not our subscribers.

The other key component is the on-board software—the operating system—in the car. We call it OS-Car. It sits in the dashboard navigation system. It provides the driver with driving instructions, like a GPS does, to switch stations and chargers; it indicates how far the car can go, helps plan your trip, and connects you to the call center for 24-hour roadside assistance.


Describe the demonstration programs in Tokyo, California, and Hawaii.

The longest-range drivers are taxi cab drivers. We built a battery-switch station in Tokyo that serviced four taxis. It ran for about 200 days—day in, day out—during which the electric taxis functioned like any other taxis. The end result was no downtime. In fact, most drivers said that the technology was better than anything they’ve used before.

In California, we’re building a similar taxi demo system that will kick off at the end of 2011 and will run into next year. We’re going to build four switch stations in the Bay Area along the Silicon Valley corridor from San Francisco to San Jose. By the end we plan to scale up to 60 taxis to demonstrate larger-scale viability.

Another project, in Hawaii, is aimed at giving residents and visitors experience with electric vehicles. It’s mainly an awareness program.


What is Better Place doing in the area of standardization?

In cooperation with Tier 1 automotive component and battery makers, we’ve created standard parts that allow any OEM automaker to build a switchable-battery car without needing to develop any parts from scratch. As a result they can buy automotive-grade battery components off the shelf. They don’t have to worry about where to source a part or how to qualify it. They can buy EV battery packs with compatible software, mechanics, interfaces…whatever is needed to plug it right into the car, and at a cheap price.


What are Better Place’s next steps in international markets?

In the spring, we announced a strategic relationship with CSG—China Southern Power Grid Co., the world’s eighth largest utility—in which we will build a Better Place visitors’ center in Guangzhou. Again, the initial focus is consumer awareness. Further details will be coming soon.