Jonathan Schultz | Projects

Better Place

Better Place's network of charge spots is designed for easy recharging of EV batteries

At last week’s Frankfurt Motor Show, Rolls-Royce unveiled a 5,500-pound sedan, Porsche fielded a collector’s-edition 911 sports car and a cabal of Russian millionaires debuted an unattainable 215 MPH exotic called the Marussia B2. Substitute a brand name or nationality here and there, and Frankfurt would mirror almost every automotive show of the past decade — if not for the upending forces of a global recession and an aggressive, well-capitalized electric-vehicle venture camped on the convention floor.

That firm, Better Place, is less than two years old, yet its CEO, Shai Agassi, put both the assembled Frankfurters and the internal-combustion engine on notice: It had ordered 100,000 purely electric vehicles, which would be deployed on the world’s roads in the next six years.

Better Place is relatively immune to the automotive industry’s current agita because it is not a car company. Rather, it is an infrastructure company, partnering with sovereign nations, utilities and manufacturers to lay both the physical and commercial groundwork for widespread electric-vehicle, or EV, adoption. This holistic approach earned the firm a 2009 INDEX Award in the Community category. As Sven Thesen, head of utility operations and sustainability strategy, sees it, Better Place’s job is to imbue the EV experience with a “component of silence: a feeling that there’s nothing exceptional about it. You go home, plug in your car, get up in the morning, car’s fully charged, life is good, off you go.” (Click here for a video demonstrating what a day in electric-vehicle utopia might look like.)

To create that vision, Better Place needs powerful connections; there’s no going it alone at this scale of infrastructure design. Its first partner, Israel, has entrusted Better Place to negotiate with utilities to run juice to charging points set strategically around urban areas, and to construct battery-swap stations where an automated process removes a depleted battery and replaces it with a topped-off one — not unlike visiting a gas station. For its part, Israel provides attractive tax and rebate incentives to ensure that citizens adopt the model. Denmark, which generates 20 percent of its electricity from wind turbines, sees EVs as a means of storing and using that clean power. The Danes’ share of those pledged 100,000 EVs will run on domestically produced clean energy, deployed on Better Place infrastructure, over the next two years.

Of course, EVs aren’t crowding dealership lots. Through an exclusive partnership with Renault-Nissan, however, Better Place has secured a supply of vehicles that is compatible with its charging and battery-swap software and hardware. At Frankfurt, Renault unveiled the Fluence ZE Concept, whose onboard computer interface and battery bay were envisioned explicitly around Better Place’s network.

If this union smacks faintly of mobile-phone manufacturer/carrier partnerships, it’s no coincidence. Better Place is ultimately a network whose revenue is determined not by hardware sales but by the car-driving public’s use of its infrastructure. It can adopt a Boost Mobile pay-as-you-go model or a T-Mobile monthly or yearly contract, whatever makes sense in the client relationship. Meanwhile, Renault-Nissan’s autos will find purchasers, but their owners — DOTs, Zipcar-like rental agencies, dealerships, even Better Place itself — won’t necessarily be the cars’ end users. Better Place’s spin on a toppling industry isn’t so much audacious as it is savvy. Says Sven Thesen, “We haven’t innovated much new technology; we’ve just added some smarts.”

Posted in: Infrastructure, Social Good

Comments [6]

I think there is a nice story here, but I don't see this as viable long-term. There are a couple of substantial weaknesses to the Better Place model:
1. Getting auto manufacturers to standardize a battery that can be swapped out in minutes just doesn't seem feasible, at least in the near term. Design cycles for cars takes years, and EVs aren't nearly well established to have automakers commit to this.
2. Recent advances in fast battery charging technology will make some of this obsolete - http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7938001.stm

It may be that our huge fleet of liquid-fueled internal combustion vehicles were an anomaly, and a more diverse system of propulsion types based upon driver needs will evolve and be the norm. What I find most encouraging is the amount of attention and thought being put into how people get around.
Neil Wehrle


Can one of those new batteries recharge in 5 minutes (or whatever the average is for a fill up)?
For around town, battery advances will be great where the average miles driven per day is under 50. Even a terrifically optimistic battery of the future getting 300 miles per charge, falls short in some instances.
What if I want to drive across country or even across the state and back (except for RI and DE)?
Hybrids and this are the best transitional option and may be the long term solution too.

Auto manufacturers will standardise batteries when there is an economic imperative to do so. Even allowing for the hidebound perspective on such things from trad Big Auto, the move to alternative fuel source automotion is well underway, it's now all just about who places where in the race. I agree that petrol/electric hybrid (and, the environmentally iffy raw sourcing aside, FCEV) represent the current best bet for the bridging technology to a future without fossil fuel motoring, but even that is not sustainable as a model for any automotive manufacturer claiming to be genuinely front-of-field in their powertrain innovations.

I believe that Better Place is a good start in moving toward greener cars. Big name companies are only going to develop at their own pace in a way that is profitable for them. Public pressure may affect them a little bit, but they are still going to have the most control over what happens. I seems to me that designers should be outside of the system like Better Place. It gives them a better perspective on what is going on. They will also be working toward bettering the product and making it greener instead of their own aims or the aims of the company. If these green cars can get on the market, the infrastructure will also grow with demand. A good electric car will just have to get out there and then the automakers and the current infrastructure will have to gradually adjust in pace with the electric car. There is no point in building the infrastructure however, without the main component being developed.
Stacie Budek

This alliance between Nissan and Renault has lots of potential in delivering good and environmentally friendly vehicles. People should watch out for these new vehicles as it is possible that they will be cars of the future
nissan parts

Better Place speaks for itself. The name itself have a clear views about how to move this planet for greener and better place. And for that electric vehicles, they shouldn't lack those electrical parts, transfer case electrical switch, electric motors. and chargers!

Jobs | May 19