December 18, 2011

Charging and Switching

“Is the car even on?” I asked myself moments before my designated driver hit the gas pedal just as the traffic light turned green. We went flying past it and I braced myself to the seat half smiling, half terrified. To call it a gas pedal might be misleading and anachronistic. In reality it was a “Go” pedal, a “Drive” pedal, a “Move Forward” pedal, and it responded as such with smooth precision and force. We were cruising at what must have been several miles per hour over the speed limit. And it was beautiful. I cursed myself for not having renewed my drivers license when I should have. Otherwise it would have been me behind the wheel of the future of electric cars.

Better Place Battery driven cars

Earlier that day, I got to Better Place not knowing exactly what to expect. Maybe just what I had read over the last couple of years: A growing Israeli energy company that represented the future of electric vehicles. A company whose purpose is to transition our way of approaching the use of vehicles altogether. No more gas, sure, but how? I was taken on a tour of the premises and my first stop was the large system room overseeing the functionality of charge spots. These, by the way, are exactly what the name would suggest: places where you can charge the battery of your vehicle.

Say you work at a large corporation and you drive every morning to work. You park and plug your vehicle to the grid. During the day your car’s battery will charge up according to an algorithm that will designate a flow of electricity to your battery depending on the capacity of the parking lot, and the necessity of your car and every other vehicle in the lot. It will also take into account your itinerary, so when you plug your car in the morning, you might not start charging right away, but by the end of the day your battery will be juiced. It will have decided who to charge up first and how much. The same concept applies to charge spots in your home, at a mall, or in public parking lots. The idea is to better utilize the available electric lines, taking into account peak hours and overall capacity. In theory, charge spots will mostly make use of wasted electricity. And by intelligently assigning energy to each vehicle, waste will considerably decrease. That’s one way.

Here’s the second way. One of the biggest concerns over current electric vehicles and hybrids, is that they take too long to charge, thus rendering them inconvenient when suddenly, you’re faced with the alarming “low battery” light flashing on the dashboard. You could head home and charge, or hook up your battery to a charge spot and start juicing. But that might not be convenient enough sometimes. You wouldn’t consider going home to fill up your gas tank, and you wouldn’t allow such a process to take more than a few minutes either. A fast battery charge under lab conditions, still takes at least 20 minutes, way more than your average visit to a gas station. The new option? Battery switching stations. In five minutes your car will be sporting a fresh new battery. Think of it as a visit to a gas station, but with the automation of a car wash.

What would it take for such a model to gain acceptance? Better Place technicians believe that two conditions have to be met: time and availability. Five minutes for a battery switch sounds reasonable enough. As for availability, Battery switching stations should run at various points in the city to make the technology worthwhile. The company’s plan is to focus on creating the necessary infrastructure (enough stations at key points) in major cities and then move outwards. So far the model has been tried with cabdrivers in Tokyo to great success, and will soon be implemented in Denmark, Australia, and Israel.

The business model is also something quite different from the norm. You might start regarding your car in the same fashion you see your cell phone service. Contract subscriptions will charge you for the use of your vehicle per mile. Maybe you will have the 1,000 miles a year plan. Perhaps the 10,000 plan. What the model promises is that you will pay less per mile than what you pay now, and that your vehicle will be given to you like a cell phone. You might get the model you want, but the true costs could be subsidized by the service provider. In this case, an energy company like Better Place.

I spoke to Moshe Kaplinsky, CEO of Better Place Israel about the current state and future of electric vehicles.

Is the business model profitable?

In Europe, in Israel, in Australia, and all over the world mainly, excluding the United States, when you drive an electric vehicle, you pay a third of what you pay per mile in a gas vehicle. We take part of the two thirds and we give the customer another part of the two thirds. So they will be happy, and we will be happy. This is the main idea. You can make the calculation. Next year in Israel, including the battery which is the main component in the price, it will cost us 9 cents per kilometer, and today it costs us 25 cents per kilometer in gas. It’s the same more or less in Europe. The difference is the same. So if I charge you 18 cents, I make 9 cents, you save 7 cents, and both of us will be happy. So the idea of Better Place is to sell kilometers. I am going to charge you in kilometers.

What is Better Place doing to penetrate the U.S. market?

You say ‘how many battery stations do we need to deploy in the U.S.?,’ and I got the answer from the mayor of Los Angeles. He visited us, he saw what we planned to do, and he said ‘why don’t you do it in L.A.? I can assure you that 95% of the citizens of L.A. never leave the area with their vehicle. And if they do, they drive either to San Diego or Las Vegas. If you put two or three battery stations on the way to San Diego and two or three on the way to Las Vegas, you cover 95% of my citizens. You take up the equivalent area of Israel and set it over the L.A. map, again over the San Diego map, and over the San Francisco map, and you cover all of California.

But surely it’s more complicated than that, with the auto-makers lobbying, and the energy industry lobbying... How do you plan to go about that?

We don’t like some aspects about the attitude of the government. We understand the forces behind it. We understand the power of the oil companies. But I believe it has to change in the United States as well. There we’re going to make a model in the U.S. We’re going to launch a taxi program in California. We’re going to have 100 taxis over there, using about ten battery switch stations in the San Francisco area, and we believe that it will be a pilot for the entire country. Think about the Australian model, and if we start working with a corridor, the East Coast corridor, the West Coast corridor, and some corridors in between, in five years we can cover the most important driving corridors in the U.S. Even if we don’t cover 100% of the driving, we’ll cover 60%. Think about the difference if 60% of drivers use electric vehicles. Take New York City for example, if its 10,000 cabs don’t use gasoline, and therefore don’t have exhaust pipes, that can change the city dramatically.

Did you encounter any obstacles before implementing the project in Tokyo? Maybe with the unions?

Not in Tokyo, because it was a government project. They financed it and they asked the biggest taxi company to take part in it. They gave us some drivers. We did the technology, they did the financing. We did it together and it was amazing. A huge success.

How’s the Australia implementation moving along?

We are going to launch in Australia next year, mid-2012. We’re going to do the Israeli model in Canberra and in Melbourne. And the year after that we’ll continue in another three major cities. Major cities are easy to cover. Around Melbourne we only need 16 battery switch stations, and with that we cover more than 20% of the entire transportation in Australia, because most of the people don’t drive their vehicles between cities. Think about it, we’ll do the five major cities, and later on we’ll connect them. So this is the idea. The same idea can work for big countries and small countries.

What comes next for Better Place after the model has been up and running in Australia, Tokyo and Israel?

Mainly, our priorities today are Western Europe and China. China is going to take the lead in the car industry. By their own declaration, they are going to be number one in the world in manufacturing electric vehicles. And they are going to do it. They put a lot of money into their car industry in order to switch from gasoline to electric. They decided that in a year or two all the taxis in the big cities, mainly Beijing, will be electric. They decided their solution to extent and range will be switchable batteries. And we know that if the Chinese decide this, they will do it

I understand that the model for recharging stations is a standardized model. How about the model for the battery changing station, is that a patent?

We built some part of it inside with a patent. But we don’t want to keep everything to ourselves because we want the entire industry to build the same system, so we opened most of it. We built our solution generic enough to support different battery sizes, and I believe that very soon there will be standardization to batteries as well.

text by: Joseph Isho Levinson

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