Better Place: Building A New Platform For Electric Cars Without The Support Of Carmakers

The New York Times Magazine uncorks a profile of electric car-infrastructure startup Better Place this weekend.

The Times follows the playbook for writing about the company and its CEO, Shai Agassi: He’s handsome, he’s confident, he was on track to be SAP’s CEO, Shimon Peres thinks he’s rad, his plan is crazy, but it could cut back on emissions. The Times gets to introduce new wrinkle, though. Better Place now has a battery swapping robot that changes a car’s battery in 45 seconds. Neat!

Click here for a fuller description of Better Place

Once it’s finished explaining the technology, and Agassi’s “darkly brooding eyebrows,” “square jaw,” and “granite self-confidence,” the magazine points out the impossibility of his plan.

“[Better Place’s plan] is also extraordinarily bold, requiring carmakers to fundamentally rethink the way they build cars,” writes the Times. To follow that up, the Times calls a few automakers and asks them if they plan on making their cars fit the Better Place model. The answer is, “No.”

  • Sue Cischke, Ford’s group VP for Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering “It’s, in my mind, going to be a long time before we ever standardize the batteries,” she said. “The chemistry is still changing, and it’s still a developing technology rather than a mature technology.” Designing a car takes at least one year and often several; making the wrong call on a standardized battery could be economically fatal for a carmaker.
  • John Hanson, Toyota’s manager of environmental communications, said “There is no market,” for electric cars, hydrogen fuel cells or even plug-in hybrids. “People say, ‘If you build it they will buy it,’ but we don’t know. Can we sell these in significant volume? Significant volume is important so that the manufacturer can make a profit, and you need significant volume if you’re going to have a positive effect on the environment. What good does it do if we only sell 500 a year? We sell 175,000 Priuses alone in North America. Those are the kind of volumes you need to have to make an impact on the environment. You cannot expect manufacturers to do this at a loss; there has to be a response by the market. So not only are we being asked to invest in a technology and bring it to market; we’re being asked to create a market that doesn’t exist yet.”

As the Times points out, “No carmakers other than Renault have announced plans to design cars to suit Agassi’s grid.” Agassi doesn’t seem to think it matters, arguing that Renault can make enough cars to satisfy his needs. We think this is completely wrong. Car buyers want options. A car is a statement about a person, and having limited options will not help.

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