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Plug In and Drive
Adam Stein, 27 Aug 08

Shai Agassi says his electric cars can save the world. People are listening.


There’s a lot to chew over in Wired’s profile of Shai Agassi, the entrepreneur engaged in an audacious experiment to electrify an entire nation’s transportation system, and in the process rewrite the automotive industry’s business model.

The nation in question is Israel, with Denmark and Hawaii possibly to follow. Agassi’s idea is that electric cars should be sold on a subscription model, like cell phones, with fees used to underwrite a network of intelligent electric outlets that ensure batteries are always topped up.

The plan is quite a bit more complicated than that, but in essence Agassi is trying to solve the same problem that plug-in hybrids and the Chevy Volt are meant to address: batteries have a limited capacity and take a long time to charge up. Hybrids work around the problem by bolting a gasoline engine on top of the electric motor. Agassi’s start-up, Better Place, hopes to cut gasoline out of the picture altogether by remaking the electrical grid. It’s an audacious vision, and the company has the financing and the partnerships in place to upgrade their prospects from pipe dream to long shot. They hope bring their all-electric cars to market in 2011.

Like I said, there’s a lot to chew over here. A few thoughts come to mind:

  • Agassi doesn’t like plug-in hybrids, but his criticism seems overstated. In fact, plug-ins could fit nicely into Better Place’s model. Or, just as likely, plug-ins could co-exist as a competitive mode of transport. It’s even possible that the market will segment geographically. Better Place’s strategy of focusing on small, isolated locations — real or virtual islands — is both ingenious and self-limiting. Plug-ins might fill the gaps in the grid.
  • Agassi has hinted that his company would be willing to purchase green power to fuel its fleet. This is like placing a tax on transportation to fund the build-out of renewable energy. Which actually seems like pretty good public policy. (It’s also an interesting commentary that such a system might come out of the private sector, rather than the government.)
  • Although electrification of the transport sector is a clear benefit to the environment, the subscription model realigns incentives in ways that may alarm some greens. Remember all those conspiracy theories about how Detroit and the oil companies had teamed up to keep Americans driving huge, inefficient cars? Well, consider the implications of the pay-as-you-drive model for electric cars.

There’s a lot more to be said on this last point. It’s an article of faith among many that “car culture” itself is a problem, and that a green future will involve a lot more walking, public transportation, and bikes. While such a scenario may come to pass, it’s by no means a certainty (nor, it should be said, are such solutions incompatible with Better Place’s vision). The advent of the electric car could mean that the future looks a lot like it does now, only without any gas stations. It’s notable that under Better Place’s model, the cost of car ownership actually goes down, which means miles driven should go up. As alarming as this prospect may sound, it isn’t necessarily a problem. Personal mobility is a wonderful thing, a luxury for many and a necessity for most. If we can have mobility without the environmental cost, then so much the better.

Image by Wired.

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This seems like a great match for car sharing: dedicated parking spaces, special key fobs, an information infrastructure, metering usage. This solves the range problem; rather than swapping out batteries when you need more range, just drive off in a different car with a healthier charge - or pick out a plug-in hybrid instead. Carshare is exactly the application where one is minimizing range anyway, so the battery range limitations aren't nearly as troublesome. And last but not least, using electric drive to improve air quality via reduced vehicle emissions makes the most sense in dense urban areas.

On the other hand, an increase in per-car utilization due to car sharing may leave less idle time to allow recharging, so the fleet may have to do most of its charging during off-hours.

Posted by: David Kitchin on 27 Aug 08

Excellent to hear they're considering going renewable on the energy source. Car manufacturers keep talking grandly about "taking the car out of the environmental equation" (well GM certainly does anyway) but this is a way that might actually work, especially if they build renewables into the manufacturing process right from the start.

All those batteries sitting in swap stations could soak up a lot of off peak renewable power to feed the cars or drop it back onto the grid as required (earning revenue accordingly).

Btw I assume you mean Volt rather than EV-1 ;)

Posted by: Scatter on 28 Aug 08

Um, yeah: the Chevy Volt. Let me see if I can get that changed. Thanks for catching that.

Posted by: Adam Stein on 28 Aug 08

Why not look to offset CO2 to affect the emissions. It is more direct, quicker and more likely to push people to carpool, drive less and buy more efficiently.

Posted by: Eric Taub on 28 Aug 08

Adam, love the post - I read the Wired profile recently and was impressed.

One caution: making vehicles electric does not provide "mobility without the environmental cost." I agree with David, this goes hand-in-glove with car sharing and other car reduction strategies. Less driving, as just one example, means less electricity demand, with the potential to provide it through renewables - an impossibility with the amount of miles clocked by Americans today. People driving as much as they do now in their electric cars will still have devastating environmental and social consequences. It isn't all about the tailpipe...

Posted by: Justus on 28 Aug 08

I agree with the other posters who think that a car-sharing model may make this scheme greener and more flexible.

Car sharing allows for accommodating folks' travel needs with many fewer individual cars, which reduces the considerable environmental burden of building, maintaining, and ultimately disposing of them. City Car Share, San Francisco's local nonprofit car share company, estimates that for every vehicle they put on the road, somewhere between 7 and 20 come off the road. Shared cars also mean that less space need be dedicated to parking, a big consideration if we are also going to move towards bright green cities. Any architect will tell you that one of the challenges of building denser housing is finding room for all the parked cars required under most building codes.

The pay-per-mile and pay-per-hour rate structures of some car sharing organizations often changes members' driving habits, and encourages transit use. A study done for the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) found that placing car-share pods at transit stations increased public transit use, rather than decreasing it. The key is to price small distances and small increments of time; selling time or miles in large blocks encourages people to drive around all day once they have reserved the car.

San Francisco has been reducing the amount of parking required in new developments in transit-rich parts of the city for the last decade, but now requires that car-share spaces, along with secure bike parking, be set aside in new buildings. Electric and plug-in hybrid car share seems like the next logical step.

Posted by: Tom Radulovich on 29 Aug 08



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