Your Electric Car is Almost Here

I just finished reading a Wired article featuring Shai Agassi and his company, Better Place. It’s very much worth a read if you’re at all interested in electric cars, alternative energy, and weaning the world off the oil teat. Just a couple pages into the article I was ready to buy one of his new cars.

Yes, there are going to be bumps in the road; lots of whining and buts and I-don’t-thinks. But you know what? It’s like Yoda said: “Do or do not. There is no try.” You can read it all and come to your own conclusions, I have something else I wanted to talk about.

Agassi and his company are are changing the distribution model slightly, but for the most part it still follows the traditional pattern of the current petroleum infrastructure: you pull up to the charging station and top off your batteries. Better Place takes it a step further by having additional stations where you can swap out your entire battery when necessary, be it if you can’t get a full charge fast enough or if your battery is just wearing down. (By the way, with his numbers, annual swapping/charging costs are only a third of what you spend on gasoline at $4/gallon.)

Why not do away with charging stations altogether? Just have the battery swapping stations, not both.

The example they give is a person pulls into a charging station, plugs in (or a hydraulic arm plugs you in automatically), and tops off. Sounds familiar, right? Since we’re talking about electricity now, why not just move these charging stations to the customer’s ultimate destinations?

Whether you have to go shopping or sit down for breakfast, you ‘re going to be in the building for some time. Rather than letting the car sit idle in the parking lot, if Better Place sells/licenses/leases/whatever their charging stations to the company, you can plug it in and let it top off while you’re shopping. Employers and city garages could install them and run it off their existing power. Apartment complexes could do the same. (I can hear you now: strains on grid, blah blah blah. Go read the article. It’s no more far-fetched than what Agassi is already proposing. If people stop fighting wind farms and nuke plants, it wouldn’t be an issue.)

This solves another problem: because you’re constantly charging the battery, you don’t keep running empty. If I have to run to three different stores and can plug in at least one, I should be covered. If I can’t juice up at home, maybe all my other stops let me juice up enough that I don’t have to sweat it. And if not, there’s the battery swap station (which will no doubt also have charging available).

The charging/swapping combo is what you sell to the existing gas station owners. Now they don’t have to deal with gas brokers and speculation and refinery shutdowns, they just have to work with their local electrical utility. Gas stations that already have fast food joints in them are a no-brainer because now people can come in, suck down a coffee and a McMuffin, and return to a fully-charged car.

If I’m running a gas station without a restaurant, I’m ecstatic. Now the people who pay at the pump and drive off may come in and wait while their battery is charging because they don’t have to babysit the flow of gasoline anymore. Now I’m selling more impulse goods. Maybe I put in a small lounge with a couple seats, a newspaper rack, and a coffee machine in easy reach. Maybe I install a television. Maybe I install a wi-fi hotspot for the power broker who can’t wait five more minutes until he gets to the office. Anything to keep the foot traffic coming and giving me a chance to sell them something.

Or maybe I’m just having flashbacks to my retail days again.

UPDATE 10/23: A Better Place has just landed a deal to build an electric car network in Australia.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

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  1. Eric says:

    I don’t disagree with your theory, but any battery capable of propelling a vehicle for 100+ miles, won’t be recharged fully in 15 minutes. I think the charging should be handled by a company and you just stop by the station and have a battery exchange program (kind of like the tank exchange for your gas grill at home). drop off your dead, pick up a fully charged, pay your fee and off you go.

  2. Mike says:

    That’s exactly what they’re proposing — a mix of both. Very interesting reading.

    Basically, the car includes software with the battery monitor that is location aware and tracks your travel. If it determines you’re going to work (it will confirm), it calculates your necessary charge and then tells you whether or not you can get there or whether you need to charge up. That decision also includes whether or not to just plug in or grab a battery.

  3. kerry bradshaw says:

    I’m amazed at the ignorance of many of those who are shilling for Agassi’s monopolistic, extravagantly expensive scheme, which is not one he thought up (since it doesn’t involve making billions)
    Shai Agassi has managed to convince the
    controlling politicians of several rather
    energy-desperate countries (Israel and Denmark)
    of the merits of his battery swapping scheme (an
    old idea not original with Agassi) as the best
    way to avoid petroleum dependencies. There are
    severe problems with his arguments :
    1) his system won’t come anywhere close to
    removing petroleum dependencies – fully 1/3rd
    is used for commercial trucking, boats, etc,
    which won’t be covered by his system, nor
    will any of the petroleum used to make heating oil,
    lubricants, etc. This will be true irregardless of
    which private transportation technology is adopted.
    2) his tiny vehicles will not satisfy the needs
    of the driving public;
    3) the swapping frequency while on a trip (about every
    80 minutes) is needlessly inconvenient;
    4) Each highway traveller on a trip in his system requires many
    battery packs in reserve every day to meet his mileage
    requirements. This greatly increases the number of battery
    packs the system and its overall costs. Batteries are one of
    the main reasons electric cars are not practical, and his
    system makes that deficiency even worse.
    The battery packs muct also be located in just the right
    spots.
    4) Agassi’s economic arguments are only directed at gas powered
    vehicles, which are NOT the main competitors his system
    must face :
    5) Plug-in hybrids are his main competitors, like the 40 mile
    electric ranged Volt, which can accomplish every bit as
    much as his much more expensive (trillions for infrastructure),
    inconvenient system of tiny vehicles :
    For one thing, we can electrify a lot more vehicle types
    as plug-ins (e.g. large pickup trucks, vans, etc.) than we
    could using swappable battery power drivetrains, which are
    severely limited in their power outputs.
    And we can easily demonstrate, using DOT commuter trip
    statistics, that a 40 mile range plug-in fleet can avoid 94%
    of current commuter gasoline requirements (97% if 1/4 of the
    workers can recharge at their workplace), and probably more
    than 93% overall. That range will likely be 50 miles in the near future, which would avoid 96% and 98% respectively.
    Regardless, it’s clear that any liquid fuel
    requirements of a plug-in fleet can be met entirely by ethanol.
    Since ethanol is more carbon neutral that typical electrical
    power, Agassi’s scheme is inferior in carbon emissions, although,
    quite frankly, any differences between the two systems is
    insignificant and unimportant : both will achieve far more than
    is required.
    Agassi has simply not produced a viable, or even defensible,
    technology for the electrification of the fleet. And when
    batteries become quickly rechargeable, Agassi’s entire trillion
    dollar system becomes instantly obsolete, whereas the current system
    we have would simply find gas stations swapping out gas pumps for charging posts as the demand irrevocably shifts from gasoline to electricity. And since a very large portion of the electricity
    used to fill those batteries will come from household outlets,
    a great many of the gas stations today will disappear, making
    the transportation fueling system even more efficient.

  4. Mike says:

    I see where you’re coming from, but NO solution/alternative is going to be easy or cheap. His idea is at least some new thinking that may lead to some better ideas from other people.

    I think it’s arguable that the costs of oil — be it for transportation or for heating our homes — is driving the economic downturn. By your own numbers, the potential is there to cut oil consumption by 2/3. Is that not enough? If oil prices really are driven by supply and demand as the speculators claim, a 2/3 cut should slash prices nicely.

    And if you re-read my post, the gas station merely become the battery stores/swappers. I completely agree with your conclusion that charging capabilities need to be ubiquitous. Put the power where the cars will be, rather than expecting cars to come to the power.

    As for ethanol, there are two problems: water consumption and food prices. Better than oil, yes, but also fraught with peril.

    There’s no magic bullet. We either start changing things or let the current situation worsen.

  5. Mikey says:

    I read the article too and I’m not fond of the idea. Partly because of increased inconvenience for those of us who have to travel a long ways to get anywhere (not a prob in cities, though), partly because we haven’t yet moved to clean power (like wind and geothermal and nuclear…ignorant folks continue to fight all three), partly because battery technology is still waaaay behind the curve (even batteries which don’t establish a memory have to be run down/equilized regularly…which costs time and money and wears ’em down, and lastly because almost all batteries require heavy metals which, when mined, create significantly greater environmental damage than coal-burning plants.

    Those are the minor reasons. The major reason is I love a big, rumbly V-8 engine. Internal combustion is my friend. Rush’s song “Red Barchetta” brings tears to my eyes.

    -Mikey-