I am driving 80 k.p.h. on a test track course 20 minutes outside of Tel Aviv. The only noise I can hear is my instructor telling me to go faster, to really floor it. Beyond that, there’s only silence—this isn’t your typical car.
I was test-driving a prototype electric car from Better Place—and if you haven’t heard of the electric car company yet, you will soon. The company was introduced to the world by authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer in their book, Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. This radical upstart was founded by Shai Agassi in typical Israeli style—quick, blunt, and with a masterful idea behind the concept.
The car’s façade might not be sexy, but its message is.
Agassi was prompted to create his ingenious company in response to a question posted at the World Economic Forum in 2005: “How do we make the world a better place by 2020?” The Israeli entrepreneur, who came from a high-ranking executive position at the German software company SAP, tackled the problems facing many electric car companies: namely that the batteries were saddled with limited driving range, high prices, and poor performance. Agassi strategized to make the lithium ion batteries able to be charged at home and work for up to 90 miles. Customers are then billed based on usage, similar to using a cell phone. Better Place notes that the charge per mile is priced competitively with gasoline-based models.
What sets this apart from other electric car companies is that depleted batteries can be exchanged within three minutes at various switching stations, which will soon dot Israel’s highway system. Drivers and passengers won’t even need to get out of the car to charge up. By creating this infrastructure, Better Place has made using electric cars a viable option and a green alternative to gas-guzzlers. In fact, Better Place’s cars boast zero emissions and zero oil.
Ultimately, Better Place’s goal is to introduce sustainable, highly efficient, oil-free electric cars to the world. There’s more to their mission, though, with geo-political undertones ranging from our recent world economic crisis to no longer supporting unstable regimes. Obviously, for the Israeli-born Agassi, this means not only reducing dependence on Middle Eastern oil, but also the anti-Israel governments they represent. The catastrophic oil spill that has devastated the Gulf makes their operation even more crucial. A high-tech, hologram presentation I watched at Better Place’s modern facility reminded me that standard cars are also responsible for air and noise pollution, breathing problems, and global warming. Yes, they’re demonizing our Beemers and Hummers, but they’re also offering an alternative solution.
Better Place has already raised $700 million in capital, including a $350 million haul that breathed life into the venture capital landscape in Palo Alto, California, where the company is based. The nascent car company also has the support of Israel’s two-time prime minister and current President Shimon Peres. Peres was crucial in the early fundraising stages, and even accompanied Agassi to high-level meetings around the world. A last-ditch meeting with Renault’s CEO, Carlos Ghosn, and Agassi and Peres proved to be fortuitous, and the French car maker signed on to produce the cars.
Better Place’s efforts aren’t just restricted to Israel. Countries such as Denmark, Australia, and Japan have partnered with Better Place to bring electric cars and switching stations to their shores. Within Tokyo, several of the electric cars are already being tested as taxicabs. China, Canada, and the United States have expressed interest, too. In Hawaii, for example, Governor Linda Lingle teamed up with Better Place to bring these sustainable electric cars to her state by 2012. California is also committed, with a test run in the Bay Area.
So, how does all of this translate to the driving experience? After being one of the first civilians to test drive the prototype as part of a National Young Leadership trip, I am impressed with the car’s handling and speed. The five-person cabin is spacious and tricked out with a navigation system, entertainment console, and interactive program (similar to OnStar), which lets you know when the car needs its next charge and locates the closest switching station. The network software will be monitored nationwide, allowing Better Place to maximize its charging and switching stations based on real data. I have a feeling the user’s manual will be very thick when the car debuts.
Although the model I drove was not quite the one that will be on the streets in 2011 (the body will be slightly different), the feel of the car will be the same when it makes its debut. It felt modern, fast, and responsive. This vehicle is quicker and quieter than the Toyota Prius hybrid. As expected, the car does not have a gas tank or tail pipe. In fact, there are fewer moving parts overall, which means less trips to the repair shop. The car’s façade might not be sexy, but its message is.
The team at Better Place is calling their car company a “global revolution,” and they aim to change the world. While that remains to be seen, green enthusiasts are keeping an eye on the upstart with the chutzpah to take on big oil. At least their revolution will be quiet and clean.
Jacquelynn D. Powers is a writer based in Miami Beach. Her work has appeared in the Miami New Times and slashfood.com. Prior to that, she was the Senior Editor of Ocean Drive magazine for over a decade.