Israel’s New Electric Car Smart Grid

March 16th, 2011 at 7:17 am | 9 Comments |

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Is the gas-powered car on the road to extinction?

FrumForum visited Better Place, a firm based in Tel Aviv that is dedicated to developing an infrastructure to support the use of electric cars, to meet with CEO and Founder Shai Agassi and to test-drive an electric car.

For obvious reasons, Israel is particularly concerned with its oil dependency, and Agassi has been working for the last few years to revolutionize the transportation paradigm.

As he puts it, there are two keys to designing a car that will be successful on the market: convenience and cost. Previous models of electric cars that required a 35 minute charge time were not acceptable compared to the alternative, which is two or three minutes to gas up a car.

On the cost front, Better Place has tried to address the issue by ordering a batch of 100,000 cars, which should hit the market later this year. The higher volume of production than seen before in previous electric car ventures should be able to utilize economies of scale and drive prices down, argues Agassi. In fact, he tells FrumForum that the firm expects an electric car to be priced around $15,000 by 2015, figuring in the projected decline in price for components due to the normal course of innovation in consumer electronics.

Even better, Agassi says that the cost of moving the car – battery depletion, the cost of recharging, and the depreciation of the car – would amount to an equivalent of $1 per gallon of gasoline. Put more spectacularly, this would make the electric car competitive without the need for gasoline taxes.

In order to deal with the convenience issue, Better Place has opted for battery-switching stations rather than battery-charging stations. The battery swapping mechanism that Better Place is using is the same that Israelis use to load bombs onto F-16 fighter jets, and the driver does not have to get out of the car to do it. Under a pilot program currently underway in Tokyo, the automated battery switching process takes less than a minute, while on the other hand electric car models that rely on charging can take upwards of half an hour.

Better Place’s plans are moving forward quickly, it seems. The firm put in an order for 100,000 cars with automaker Renault in September 2009, and Agassi hopes to have the car on the market by the end of the year, along with 40 battery-changing stations in Israel.

The firm has developed some brilliant innovations to counter some of the problems that come with the production of electric cars. One such problem: energy consumption – if every single one of Israel’s 2 million cars were electric and charging at the same time, the country’s electrical grid would fail. So Better Place has developed a system to prioritize customers and spread the load on the country’s grid.

A computer in the car issues a number between one and ten to a network set up to manage a queue of cars waiting to charge at home or work, and this network coordinates with electrical utilities’ ability to handle the load. A certain number of cars are allowed in each neighborhood to charge at certain times during the evening, which spreads the burden on the grid over a longer period of time. Further, the computer notes when the car is typically moving – say it recognizes that the car is driven every Thursday at 4PM – and includes this into the calculation of the car’s queue priority number.

The interest in CEO Shay Agassi, who made Time’s 100 Most Influential People’s List in 2009 and Foreign Policy’s equivalent in 2010, and his company lies in his adept grasp of numbers and the succinct way he addresses challenges to his goals. During an interview with several journalists, of which FrumForum was a part, Agassi kept throwing out statistics to underlie his point.

An important example: the United States spends $8.5 billion dollars a week on gasoline consumption. With this amount, you could set up a network of battery-switching stations that could support 10% of American cars – sufficient to support the first wave of converts.

FrumForum had the opportunity to briefly test-drive a model of the electric car similar to those that will be entering the market by the end of this year. The results were spectacular: an engine that makes virtually no noise – to the point where the guide had to be asked if the car was even on – in addition to the fact that the design of the electric car seems not to have compromised handling, acceleration. The car managed to accelerate quickly to 80 km/hour, the speed limit of the road it was tested on, with ease.

There should not be very much concern about the car’s range – which is only about 100 miles. The GPS built into the car can automatically direct the driver to the nearest battery-swapping location. Further, while at home and at work, the driver can charge the car – providing a range that is more than adequate for typical daily trips.

One problem, however, from the driving experience standpoint. The car employs a system that uses the momentum of the car to recharge its battery when your foot is not on the gas pedal, which makes the battery life last longer. But this process also creates a noticeable drag when the car is not accelerating, something that took me aback when I first drove the car. The guide in the car accompanying FrumForum mentioned that this drag would be minimized in versions of the car that will hit the market late this year.

The future of the electric car is unquestionably bright, especially in Israel. But how will car manufactures and the gasoline industry react to this new competition? By stifling this new development, or rushing to embrace it?

Tim Mak is in Israel as a Media Fellow with the new media organization Act for Israel.

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9 Comments so far ↓

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  • Leo

    100 mile range might not be enough for American drivers. Nothing in this report about what happens if you turn on air conditioning or heat.

  • medinnus

    Still, this innovation should be American, except for the political clout of Big Oil, who will scream and shout and put gas to $5.00 a gallon before they die.

  • Carney

    Of the many alternatives to the standard gasoline-only car, electric cars are among the better ones – I’d even say second best.

    My preferred solution is to use alcohol fuel (such as methanol and ethanol) in fully flex fueled cars, as described in the book “Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil” by Dr. Robert Zubrin. or see his talk to Google at

    EVs have issues related to range, power, up-front price, and (as the article alludes to) recharge times. I’m not saying those are fatal flaws, but they are definitely barriers to mass market adoption.

    Range doesn’t matter much in Israel – a tiny country surrounded by unfriendly neighbors. It would matter more in other nations, especially the US.

    The auto industry has done a good job at agreeing on a standard plug (the SAE J1772) to smooth the path of adoption of EVs – the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Tesla Roadster, and Ford Focus EV all support it.

    But what they have NOT done is agreed to a standard size, shape, and location for the batteries. Think of what a convenience it has been that there are only a few battery sizes for household electronic and electrical devices (AA, AAA, C, D, 9 volt), regardless of storage capacity, internal chemistry, rechargeabilty (or lack thereof), other features (such as built-in charge gauge). Instead each EV manufacturer is going on its own course with wildly different batteries.

    That seems to me to be a huge, if not insurmountable obstacle, to Better Place’s business model. Wouldn’t they have to store a number of batteries of EVERY electric car on the road? The logistics and finances seem prohibitive.

    If the Better Place idea doesn’t work out, EVs that are not equipped with a Chevy Volt style range extending internal combustion engine as a backup will face “range anxiety” issues. While well suited for the daily commute, as well as other local driving (errands, shopping, evenings out, social visits), it may always hover in the back of a driver’s mind that in an emergency he cannot zip a few states away to visit an ailing relative, or may end up stranded before liquid fueled cars do when in extreme traffic or weather conditions. Cars represent freedom to move where and when you wish, and such limitations may grate, especially on Americans.

  • greg_barton

    Carney…cars…you can rent them…

  • Brazen

    I think the US is too big to have only EV’s. A huge portion of the country has to deal with inclimate weather which the EV’s may not be very great in. I know that when a huge snow storm comes, like it did many times this year, I have my Chevy Silverado 4X4 to get me from A to B. I can’t see myself buying one of these cars unless I live in a place where it does not snow.

    Secondly, Israel is spending a lot of money to develop the infrastructure for EV’s. I think this is a great idea, but statistically the US spends far less money on infrastructure than other developed countries. Being that we are a large nation, we would need to spend much more than Israel and I don’t see that happening … ever. EV’s may have thier place in large cities where typical commutes are within range of the battery power of the car. Also, the infrastructure would be easier to create and maintain in these smaller areas.

    • Carney

      More than 75% of Americans work within a 20 miles drive of home, enabling them to use the Chevrolet Volt in all-electric mode for their daily schlep. And “pure” EVs have even longer electric-only ranges.

      You’re right that bad weather reduces EV range, but it also has that effect on liquid fuel vehicles. Plenty of stranded cars this past winter with the snowstorms.