Green

Why Better Place was doomed to epic failure from the start

Abandoned Better Place battery-swap station, Israel, April 2014.

Above: Abandoned Better Place battery-swap station, Israel, April 2014.

The remarkable scope, overwhelming ambition, and epic failure of the Better Place electric-car service in Israel is worthy of a book, or several.

But until one appears, Fast Company magazine has produced the most comprehensive article yet on the founding–and foundering–of the great Better Place experiment.

Published three weeks ago in the May issue, it’s a long article, but well worth the read.

The piece argues, in essence, that Better Place was doomed before it even began.

“There was profligacy, marketing problems, hiring problems, problems with every conceivable part of the business,” Chafkin writes.

“There was questionable oversight by the company’s board of directors. There was bad luck. And there was hubris.”

A nation without oil

Conceived in 2005, announced four years later at the TED Conference by founder Shai Agassi–the article calls him “a proud Israeli with a bit of a Steve Jobs complex”–the ambitious service consumed almost $1 billion in venture capital.

The concept had come from Agassi’s idea of running a nation without oil, most of which in Israel–as in many other countries–was used in gasoline and diesel vehicles for transport.

To do that, Better Place would offer battery-electric cars with not only a comprehensive network of public charging stations, but a web of battery-swap stations to enable long-distance travel throughout Israel.

Drivers could swap out depleted batteries for fresh ones in less than five minutes via drive-through swap stations. They could even make reservations to do so on the in-car telematics system.

The car was the Renault Fluence ZE (for “zero emission”), announced by Agassi and the CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, Carlos Ghosn–with production of 100,000 units projected by 2015.

The Better Place Fluence ZE was an adaptation of a conventional French mid-size sedan, with a 70-kilowatt (94-horsepower) electric motor driving the front wheels and a re-engineered trunk to allow the 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery to be dropped out the bottom at swap stations.

The Better Place service would sell the cars and packages of kilometers to be covered each year, just as mobile-phone service has been sold in packages of minutes.

In essence, while the program got up and running in Israel, it never attracted anything like the number of customers it needed to get to the necessary scale.

Beyond that, we’d suggest reading the article. It’s worth it.

Our writer Brian of London covered his many months as a Better Place driver, and wrote the company’s obituary last October after it became clear that no rescue was in sight.

As it turns out, he also served as a tour guide for the article’s author, Max Chafkin, and wrote about that experience as well just after the Fast Company piece appeared.

“I actually get emotional about Better Place still,” he writes in his final piece.

“The promise was so great, the potential to change the world in a good way was there but many things went wrong.”

He too recommends Chafkin’s piece.

Read it, and muse on what might have been–and what lessons can be learned as electric cars continue to make their way slowly into the world’s vehicle fleets.

This story originally appeared on www.greencarreports.com.