An oil-free future may sound like science fiction but practical steps towards this aim are being undertaken by Shai Agassi and his team at Better Place. The mobility operator was founded in 2007 and is beginning to deploy its vision in Israel – which aims to be independent of oil by 2020 – where the first electric parking lot was launched this December.

About 90% of car owners in Israel drive less than 70km each day and major urban centres are less than 150km apart. These factors provide the ideal environment for Better Place to showcase and trial its futuristic transport system.

The better model

The Better Place business model is similar to that of the mobile phone. While consumers pay very little for the phone handsets they use, it is the minutes they spend talking that cost money. “Applying the same model as mobile phones to electric vehicles, we set a ubiquitous infrastructure that makes electric vehicles convenient, affordable and appealing to consumers,” writes CEO Shai Agassi in his blog ‘The Long Tailpipe’.

Drivers pay for the miles they accumulate in their electric vehicle and the in-car ‘AutOS’ software (developed and designed by Better Place) enables them to locate charge points through the use of intelligent transport systems. Better Place then operates an Electric Recharge Grid (ERG) which connects the system together.

At the beginning of 2008, the Renault-Nissan Alliance and Better Place partnered with the aim of mass marketing electric vehicles in Israel aided by significant tax incentives from the Israeli government. The cars, designed to run on pure electricity through a lithium-ion battery, offer the same performance as gasoline-run vehicles. However, progress will be held-back until the infrastructure and services are ready in 2011.

“It is important to have the electric charge infrastructure and mobility services in place so the driver has a seamless transition in making the switch from the pump to the plug,” says a Better Place spokesperson. “We are taking on 10,000 electric vehicles in the first year.”

Infrastructure development

Better Place has teamed up with the ‘Ahuzat Hof’ brand of parking lots and earlier this month unveiled its first plugged-in parking area at Cinema City in Pi-Glilot, along with its new charging spot design and process. “By the end of this year, we will install approximately 800 charging spots,” says Moshe Kaplinsky, CEO of Better Place Israel.

However, there are words of caution from some analysts who believe that the change in infrastructure required to support mass circulation of electric vehicles will not catch on until battery lives are extended. “Until ranges of pure electrics increase to at least 250 miles, I think use of such vehicles for inter-city travel is not feasible,” says Richard Wallace at the Centre for Automotive Research.

“The biggest issue about the switch in power will be the question of refuelling while you’re out and about.”

Changing the road infrastructure so much will inevitably have an impact on the aesthetic of the surrounding environment. To combat any local reluctance from this angle, San Francisco-based New Deal Design produced a simple and elegant charge spot design based on primary shapes with minimal details at its ‘business end’ which Better Place could deploy. “As such it is most interesting from a short distance and less intrusive from a distance, blending in easily into the city scape,” says a New Deal Design spokesperson. “The design seeks to establish a cultural icon for Better Place while relying on street objects such as parking metres for its cultural grounding. It is familiar and innovative at the same time.”

The feasibility of charge spots at parking spaces, however, is an area of concern for some analysts. “The biggest issue about the switch in power will be the question of refuelling while you’re out and about – [it] suggests where we might see major disruptions to business-as-usual,” says consultant to the Institute for the Future, James Cascio.

“Better Place proposes the implementation of fully-automated battery swapping stations.”

However, according to Better Place, AutOS will be designed to enable drivers to manage their parking and charging experience by identifying and even booking available parking and charge spaces in advance. “In designing and deploying the charge spot, our top priority is the driver’s experience,” says Tal Agassi, director of infrastructure products and international deployment development, Better Place. “The system centralises the energy consumption of the car and helps the driver to plan an intelligent destination path so that the car always has more than enough power to get to and from a destination.”

In addition, Better Place proposes the implementation of fully-automated battery swapping stations where the depleted battery is removed and replaced in under three minutes. Eventually it intends to stock all manufactured batteries so any model can stop and swap.

As Israel’s developments take hold the concept has also been welcomed in both Denmark and Australia as well as two states within the US. In Hawaii changes to parking infrastructure will soon be taking place and electric vehicles introduced within the next 18 months while California’s Bay Area is the first area in the US to make the switch.