Better Place, for Better or Worse?

It's not such a surprise that the pioneering electric-car company failed. What matters now is that others continue to push for change.

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1. The Better Place initiative has been plagued by doubts from the start. Everyone heard, read, and wondered about the attempt to force a new business model on one of the most diehard industries; on the desire to educate the market; and the pretensions of doing so using a less-than-exciting product and costly, undeveloped technology; all the while ignoring the relative success of electrically-charged cars, depending on supporting regulation and relying on an infrastructural monopoly. And to top it off, all this was done under the guise of ersatz environmentalism. It was all out in the open and public knowledge, but none of this put even a dent in the well-oiled public relations machine.

The reason is that the driving force behind the Better Place vision wasn't necessarily the longing for an infrastructure revolution. It was for a fresh and insolent challenge to the daily scheme of things. Propelling the seemingly bizarre business model wasn't a desire to lower the price of gas or leverage unexploited real estate, but to shake up the entrenched patterns of consumer behavior. It did attract interest from potential customers and lured them right into the sales office, even if once they got there they were turned off by Better Place's scandalous pricing policy. There was no wish to drop the cool Nissan Juke in favor of the boring Renault Fluence. What motivated them was a desire to become part of the consumer/environmental/cultural revolution that would rock the lobbies of the two most aggressive, cartelized, polluting industries of the world: the oil industry and the automotive industry.

In other words, what was forged at the root of the Better Place idea and what it left behind was the romantic, if not outlandish, hope for conceptual change. It was a desire to undermine the existing order, a desire set in motion by a glittering technological icon (and a marketing wiz, no less). Gathering in its wake was a band of jolly and cheerful followers, including a polluting tycoon and well-padded financial institutions. Together they created, if only for a moment, that warm and fuzzy feeling that this time, at long last, they were strong enough to succeed.

2. The slick rhetoric will fade in the coming days under the dust of haircuts to lenders, battles between creditors, and the outcry of orphaned customers. But at a time when a gigantic Israeli concern is collapsing and writing off billions, there's no escaping a comparison.

Better Place didn't raise a ton of money to build financial pyramids, didn't accumulate assets just to expand its span of control, didn't deal with speculative trading in bank shares, and didn't inflate itself just to postpone its collapse. Better Place burned $1 billion to generate change, to profit big-time from creating added value, and it needn't matter if its realization would have produced billions for Idan Ofer. When money is too cheap and readily accessible, it is better to burn it on trailblazing initiatives that leave behind valuable know-how, experience, and intellectual property. That's always a better alternative than burying it in the pit of a Las Vegas hotel.

Shai Agassi isn't "a cross between Henry Ford and Yitzhak Rabin," as he's been admiringly described by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. He is the echo of his own alternate means of population. He promoted a different way of thinking, an idea that can be reaped now by someone else.

Agassi established a start-up, just like thousands of other people around the world do every day. His angel investors were tycoons, investment banks, and governments. His media outlet was CNN, not scientific journals. His crash was therefore too monstrous to warrant a passing mention at the bottom of the newspaper page.

Although Better Place failed, the real damage will come if now others are dissuaded from pursuing change, from taking up the challenge and creating something new.

Shai Agassi and a demo model electric car.Credit: Reuters

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