Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Better Place with the world's first real electric car

The other day in Tel Aviv, I test-drove the world's first real electric car. The cars themselves can be any model or from any manufacturer among those who consent to be a part of this project; but the infrastructure is supplied by a company with the rather dreamy name of Better Place.

The name alone certainly encouraged me to visit their very first showroom in Israel, where Israelis can go and actually buy one of the cars. Who names a brand or a company a "Better Place" unless they were idealistic and truly wanted to change the world?

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Better Place was actually founded in Silicon Valley in 2007, but it's basically an Israel company with a home base in Tel Aviv. And, yes, they do want to change the world and make everything electric.

The showroom is in a suburb of Tel Aviv. At first glance, it looked just like any car showroom in any other country. So unless you understand that these are cars that will run solely on a fully-charged battery powered overnight by electricity, you will not see any difference between these cars and regular cars.


The cars themselves costs about US$30,000 for the standard model, and each unit comes with a "car charger" that you set up at home so that you can charge your car overnight.

If you charge your car for about six hours, it will give you roughly 185 kilometers of driving -- and most importantly, driving without any gasoline usage. In these parts, by the way, that's enough to take you from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and back.

I asked: "What if you want to drive more than 185 kilometers?"

I certainly couldn't imagine going back home and waiting another six hours to charge my car again.


Elad, my "driving instructor" smiled and said: "Better Place now has power stations between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where you can get your battery replaced in approximately four-and-a-half minutes. And next year, there will be even more power stations."

Better Cars are all based on switchable batteries -- and this is what makes it different from other electric car projects in other parts of the world.

Scroll down to read more about "Drive. Switch. Go."


Apart from the overnight charge, which is effortless since the car battery recharges as you sleep, electric cars on the Better Cars network can simply drive into one of the Better Cars battery switching stations (which I call power stations here, just to make it easier) and switch their drained battery for a fully-loaded one. They call it "Drive. Switch. Go."


Bumper stickers from the showroom
This still sounded pretty complicated to me. I persisted: "But what if you run out of battery before you get to the station? Or what if the station is out of your way?"

Elad replied: "You don't have to do anything at all. The computer in the car will do everything for you. Just input the destination and it will automatically calculate how long it will take and whether you have enough power to reach your destination. If you don't, it will tell you and show you the route where there will be a power station along the way."

Hmmm. I thought. Sounded like a GPS system, but one for power to make the car run.


Of course, the driving enthusiasm for any project of this kind is the release from dependence on oil. And how appropriate that this driving enthusiasm comes from an Israeli company, as Israel is full of geniuses for technology and yet largely surrounded by un-friendly oil-rich nations.


Another interesting point is that this will work like a club. After buying the US$30,000++ car, you join the Better Cars network and pay a low monthly fee based on how much you drive, to use the charge spots (these are spots all around Israel where you can "top up" your battery in case you don't wish to replace it yet) and the power stations. It's like being on a mobile phone contract, except we're talking cars.


Finally, it was time to try out the car. I had to show Elad my driving license first, before he would hand me the keys. And then off we went. The drive was surprisingly smooth and it felt just like any other car.


I asked Elad: "Does it drive just as fast?" It was easy to drive around a Tel Aviv suburb, right? But what if I wanted to speed down the highway towards the beaches of Eilat and give the BMW prancing on the road next to me a run for it's money?

Elad said: "It functions just like any other car. It will go from 0 to 130 kilometers per hour in the same amount of time as a regular car."

Pretty revolutionary idea, which I hope will work for the sake of our world. Too many wars and issues are coming up because of our dependence on oil. It truly will be a Better Place with less oil dependence.


It's an impressive plan. Unfortunately, it looks like Better Cars has a long way to go, although they're very optimistic and certainly rah-rah. Later that same day, I had dinner with an Israeli couple from Haifa at the Black Out theater (see one of my previous blog entries on this most fascinating dinner) and we talked about Better Cars while dining in pitch darkness.

When I told them that I'd just driven a Better Car, the guy said: "You probably are among the first in the world to do so."

Then he continued: "I hope they will succeed. But personally, I think it will be quite hard. After all, you get an electric charger when you buy the car; but most of us will park the car in the street. Where would we plug this gadget to charge our cars overnight?"

I hadn't thought of that. But hopefully, Better Place has.

Just another day in our never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.


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