The Electric Car Acid Test

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

Shai Agassi, who has spent his entire career in software, and who has no previous experience in either the auto or energy industries, is now facing The Electric Car Acid Test:

Just over a year ago, on Dec. 31, 2006, Shai Agassi settled into a leather couch in the office of Ehud Olmert to meet with the Israeli Prime Minister. Agassi, then a top executive at German software giant SAP, had come to pitch the idea of his native Israel reducing its dependence on oil by replacing gas-powered cars with electric ones. Olmert liked the concept but laid down a steep challenge: He wanted Agassi to raise hundreds of millions in venture capital and get an auto industry CEO on board before he would pledge his support. “You go find the money and find a major automaker who will commit to this, and I’ll give you the policy backing you need,” Olmert said.

Within a year, Agassi had pulled off everything Olmert had asked. He raised $200 million in venture capital and, with help from Israeli President Shimon Peres, persuaded Carlos Ghosn, the chief executive of Renault and Nissan, to make a new kind of electric car for the Israeli market. On Jan. 21, Agassi, Olmert, Peres, and Ghosn unveiled the novel project, under which Agassi’s Silicon Valley company, Better Place, will sell electric cars and build a network of locations where drivers can charge and replace batteries. Olmert has done his part, too. Israel just boosted the sales tax on gasoline-powered cars to as much as 60% and pledged to buy up old gas cars to get them off the road.

His idea requires a decent amount of infrastructure, but that’s not such a big barrier in a small, dense country where you have the government’s support:

The trouble with traditional electric cars is that they can go only 50 or 100 miles and then they need to stop for hours to recharge their batteries. Hybrids overcome the mileage limitations, but only by burning gasoline. One of Agassi’s unconventional ideas is to separate the battery from the car. That will allow drivers to pull into a battery-swapping station, a car-wash-like contraption, and wait for 10 minutes while their spent batteries are lowered from the car and fully charged replacements are hoisted into place. Better Place will build the service stations, as well as hundreds of thousands of charging locations, similar to parking meters.

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