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.