Six Years After Venture's Collapse, a Second Act Begins for Electric Cars in Israel

Two companies have announced rollouts of recharging-station networks, with government ministries supporting the move

File photo: An electric car is displayed at the headquarters of electric car venture Better Place in Tel Aviv, October 10, 2012.
Nir Elias/Reuters

It has been six years since the pioneering electric-vehicle startup Better Place collapsed so spectacularly after burning through $800 million of investors’ money. But the electric-car concept never died and is now undergoing a revival in Israel.

On Monday, Union Automotive Group, the Israeli importer of Toyotas, unveiled a subsidiary called EVedge that plans to roll out a nationwide network of recharging stations that will serve all makes and models of cars.

>> Read more: As the world adopts electric vehicles, Israel finds itself in the slow lane

Last week, Afcon Holdings said it was also launching a nationwide network, with the stations located at shopping centers owned and operated by the Big Group. In the first phase, that will mean about 20 locations and 50 stations at existing malls by the end of the year.

There’s a certain logic to locating stations at malls because, unlike filling a gas tank, recharging an electric car can take half an hour or more. “A car owner can hook up his car when he comes to a mall or café, and pay by credit card or smartphone,” said Afcon Chairman Israel Raif.

“We’re in negotiations with other companies to locate more stations. They say that by 2030, only electric cars will be imported to Israel,” he said. But Afcon plans to stake out its position long before that.

“We’re trying to align the pace of the station rollout with the electric-car penetration into Israel,” Raif said. “But the deployment will precede the entry of the cars.”

Better Place, which was launched by the entrepreneur Shai Agassi, had ambitious plans. It teamed up with Renault and planned to have up to 1,800 recharging stations or electric-battery changing facilities around the country. It was even eyeing markets overseas.

Better Place went under in May 2013, but it left behind a network of recharging stations and owners of electric cars.

Today there are about 5,000 private electric vehicles on Israeli roads made by carmakers including BMW, Porsche, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Kia and Renault. There are also about 70 electric buses in operation, most of them made by the Chinese company BYD.

These are tiny numbers, but electric cars are getting as big push, partly from Elon Musk’s company Tesla and big investments in the technology by the world’s leading automakers.

Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm, estimates that 2 million electric cars were sold around the world in 2018. It expects this number to swell to 25 million by 2025, equal to as much as 22% of total car sales.

In Israel, the government is encouraging the trend. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Ministry began offering bus operators grants to buy and operate electric buses. Meanwhile, the Energy Ministry has 25 million shekels ($7 million) to distribute over this year and next to subsidize the development of recharging stations, which Afcon said it hoped to take advantage of.

“The development of advanced, widely available, efficient and user-friendly recharging stations is critical for accelerating the entry of electric vehicles into Israel,” said EVedge CEO Ronen Yablon. “An advanced network will significantly reduce the obstacles that now exist, which are mainly psychological.”

Still, compared to Better Place, neither Afcon nor EVedge is spending a lot of money. Afcon’s investment, which it may be sharing with the Big Group (it declined to reveal financial arrangements) is believed to be in the several millions of shekels in the initial rollout. EVedge is estimated to be spending tens of millions of shekels.

EVedge said it already had agreements with many retailers and real estate companies to locate recharging stations at their facilities, among them the supermarket chain Hazi Hinam, the JTLV mall group, the Atidim high-tech park in Tel Aviv and even the Mika chain of gas stations.

EVedge has also formed a partnership with Milgam, the company that owns the popular Pango parking app. Milgam has agreements with more than 160 Israeli municipalities, which has enabled EVedge to make deals on recharging stations with Tel Aviv and other towns, as well as with Bar-Ilan University.

EVedge also plans to build recharging stations at car owners’ homes and work places, as well as at hotels and public parking areas.

Afcon has already been in the electric-vehicle business for a year after forming a subsidiary called Apcon Electric Transportation.

Before last week’s announcement, it had built recharging stations for car importers at more than 1,000 homes as well as in public parking areas. It has also developed infrastructure for electric buses after it signed an agreement with the operator Metropoline and bus lines in the city of Modi’in.

Since 2017, it has been the importer of BYD electric buses. Afcon’s promotion of electric buses clashes with the Energy Ministry’s policy of encouraging buses powered by natural gas, which Israel has in abundance, but Raif said he is undeterred.

“The whole world is moving in the direction of electric vehicles and buses,” he said. “If the whole world is moving that way, there’s no reason why Israel shouldn’t move with it.”