Shai Agassi's Better Place Electric Cars Take to the Highway

The concept: to wean the world from oil and eliminate the biggest hurdles to environmentally friendly electric cars.

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Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi has begun rolling out the world's first nationwide electric car network. After more than $400 million in outlays and months behind schedule, dozens of electric cars have hit the road in Israel, the test site Agassi chose for his Better Place venture. Four recharging stations are in operation, with plans to add dozens more within within months.

The concept: to wean the world from oil and eliminate the biggest hurdles to environmentally friendly electric cars - high cost and limited range. To do this, Better Place has jettisoned the fixed battery. Instead, drivers can swap their depleted batteries for fully charged ones at a network of stations, receiving a full, 160-kilometer range in five minutes.

Better Place owns the batteries, bringing down the purchase price of the cars using the network. People driving shorter distances, the vast majority of customers, can plug in their batteries each day to chargers installed at their homes, offices and public locations, which will fully recharge in six to eight hours.

So far, the four Better Place battery stations are set up in central and northern Israel. During the second half of the year, around 40 stations are due to be operating across the country. But even before that, the company says enough will be up that a motorist could make the 500-kilometer drive from Israel's northern tip to its southern end.

Agassi has raised $750 million from investors including General Electric and HSBC Holdings since founding Better Place four and a half years ago. French automaker Renault has begun selling a sedan, the Fluence, customized to use the stations. Currently, about 140 are on the road, most driven by Better Place employees.

The Fluence should start becoming available to the general public within weeks. Leasing companies, which buy about two-thirds of the more than 200,000 new cars sold annually in Israel, have ordered more than 1,800, and private customers have ordered several hundred more.

A major concern is "range anxiety": Will the car conk out because its battery is drained, stranding the driver in a dicey neighborhood, en route to the hospital or with three wailing kids in back?

The swappable battery model aims to reassure drivers about range and show they don't need to sacrifice convenience or cash to switch to electric. Agassi sees the "tipping point" for electric cars coming in two to three years, propelled by dropping prices of cars and batteries. By 2017, he expects 50% of all new car sales in Israel to be electric.

Better Place's electric car in a test drive near Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

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