In May of 2007, Shai Agassi launched Project Better Place. He had no cars, no test sites, no electrical engineering experience, and no automobile experience. All he had was a vision of an electric automobile charging infrastructure that would allow EVs to finally proliferate. By early summer of this year, Agassi had two countries volunteering for the plan, a major automaker, Renault/Nissan, producing cars, and $200 million in committed capital. Better Place has become the fifth largest startup ever created.
Agassi did not work alone. Shimon Peres, now the president of Isreal, called Agassi in the middle of the night a few years ago, convincing him to leave his position at SAP and make his electric car dream a reality. Most startups test their product before they make any big releases. Better World’s beta tester happens to be the nation of Isreal. Since it is small, and surrounded by water on one side and enemies on the other, the farthest someone can drive is about 250 miles in any direction. Peres helped reduce the car tax from 78 percent to 10 percent on zero-emission vehicles. Agassi posits that the tax revenue loss of $700 million would be more than refunded in money saved from importing less foreign oil. In January 2008, the Israeli government announced its support for a broad effort to promote the use of electric cars with Project Better Place.
Next, Agassi needed someone to build the car. While still working at SAP, Agassi met Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan and Renault. Ghosn was looking for a way to beat other auto companies in the race to provide a gas alternative automobile. Well, now that Agassi had a country willing to provide a grid and $200 million raised to fund the project, Renault hopped on board. Agassi promises 50 Renault prototypes this winter in Isreal and Renault promises to have an electric car on the market by 2011. Better Place hopes to have 100,000 vehicles operating by the end of 2011. And these are going to be highway speed EV’s that will be indiscernible aesthetically and performance wise from regular, internal combustion vehicles. Better Place’s first prototype is a 2005 Renault Megane:
Agassi will not disclose the other automakers he is currently in talks with, but Daimler is rumored to be talking with Better Place.
The company plans to implement the project in Denmark as well, where they are working on a partnership with Danish oil firm and utility DONG Energy. Denmark produces more energy than it needs, with 18% coming from wind. So they are actually giving away their access power to Germany and Sweden. What electric cars and charging stations provide, is a way to utilize and store this access power.
Agassi is also working to implement the project in the US, in Hawaii, which spends $62 billion importing oil to the islands. Hawaii’s business and political leaders seem sold on the idea, and just want to know if they are making electric convertibles.
My opinion, Shai is a great salesman with a noble dream. The only holdup to his plan is the one he unsuccessfully tried to explain to Kansas senator Sam Brownback by stating, “We’re like AT&T, not Nokia.” I’m not a cell phone expert, but I believe what he was trying to say with this analogy is that Better Place is more of a subscription service, than a simple, pay-as-you-go deal. The infrastructure must be in place before the cars can be used. To clarify, this was after Brownback asked Shai if he could buy one of the electric cars. The charging grid in the US would be at least a hundred billion dollars to create. But it could be just the type of massive workforce mobilization the economy needs to get out of this recession. I think he is going to need a lot more help from the US government and auto manufacturers; and GM still isn’t softening up to the idea. Either way, he is generating a lot of buzz for electric cars with one prototype and a vision.