Test driving the future with Better Place
By Debbie Meltzer
The lights were dimmed. The multimedia screens came alive. The movie rolled into action. A slick hologram image greeted us as we sat on second hand car seats. Tour guides with Madonna microphones drummed up the excitement. An evolving stage turned the screens around to reveal the show’s true star – The Renault ZE. All the showbiz plugs were pulled out – nothing short of a universal studios production.
The promise? A new era of electronic transport.
Which yellow brick road will get there you may ask? Why it’s the one to Better Place’s demo center in Pi-Glilot, Ramat Hasharon, Israel. Once there, jolly smiling assistants enroll you and then usher you into the movie theatre. Enthusiastic and upbeat, they beam with optimism, eagerly waiting to take you for a test drive or a battery swap demo.
This is the future of transport and we have solved a significant part of it – This is the message coming across loud and clear.
That’s it folks. Pack your woes in the boot. No need to be concerned about infrastructure, battery swapping, battery junk yards, lithium shortages, sulphur dioxide pollution, competing car stations, battery compatibility, tax breaks, government support, or the coal needed to generate energy in the first place.
Just press the start button and away we go…
Truth is when you get a go on the test track, the drive is exceptionally smooth. No roar, no purr, no splut. The Renault ZE – a standard sedan on the outside with EV technology inside was surprisingly quiet. Acceleration was seamless. The sprint is 0-60 mph in 10 seconds. The breaking was subtle. It can even be easily adjusted to be more aggressive.
The cool factor is embedded in the dashboard’s design where information on breaking, battery capacity and the nearest charging station are digitally displayed on the control screen. The software, we were told, could possibly interface with future power-monitoring technology to feed power from parked cars. Like!
The unsettling factor is the lithium packed battery that Better Place will own along with the infrastructure for servicing them. The charging, needing six to eight hours, will keep the car going for 130 kilometers.
This range may suit short distances, like in Israel or Denmark, the first launch sites, but what happens when you turn into, let’s say, the Pan American highway or the Autobahn? What happens when you drive along more challenging terrain demanding more power?
Better Place hasn’t found all the answers yet, even though their tour guides will lead you to believe otherwise, but they seem to be overcoming some fierce challenges.
In central Israel, for instance, they have erected a charging infrastructure featuring designer charge poles that are already densely dotting public places. At the demo center we were shown how drivers can easily top off at one of these curbside charging poles. In my home town – Hod Hasharon alone, there are at least three of them.
They are also planning to launch battery switch stations – A tall order for batteries weighing each – 250 kilograms. But after witnessing a demo switch before my very own eyes, I’m convinced it can be done.
Apparently a fully functional battery swap station is operating in Tokyo. It is servicing a pilot-program fleet of three cabs. We were told the taxis visit the station almost every hour – not for recharging, but to satisfy inquisitive passengers keen to get a glimpse of the future.
Although Better Place claim the battery-swap sessions have been clocking in below one minute, the demo displayed a different story. Its not just about battery swapping, it’s about lining up to drive onto a ramp, setting the switch in motion, and then driving off the ramp. Being a ferociously high-cost system, don’t expect to see more than one per station for a while.
The final stations will accommodate multiple types of batteries and will have greater storage capacity,” says Kiyotaka Fujii, president of Better Place Japan. That statement seems a bit rash; who says that competing EV manufacturers will be willing to design system compatible batteries? Why should they? After all, what’s stopping Ford Motor Co let’s say from owning car batteries or selling power to customers through their own charging stations without a middle man?
Alarmingly no one is raising an alert on the amount of coal needed to fuel the charging power. Sure there are talks about wind and solar power some time in the distant future, but what will happen till then? Are we replacing one environmental hazard with another?
What does Better Place plan to do with the junked out batteries? And let’s say there is no shortage of lithium, as some scientists may have us believe, what about other rare earth elements needed in the battery like cobalt. What about the highly polluting sulphur dioxide that will be increasingly spitting out from the lithium battery manufacturing plants? At Better Place they assured me they have begun to think about these issues.
Despite the list of concerns, I truly commend Better Place for daring to dream, for designing their future and then doing everything they can to make it happen. Most importantly they secured the funding (750 million dollars) to keep the momentum going for a long time.
Their vision – to change the transportation landscape is beginning to surge. Slowly but surely they are overcoming near-impossible hurdles. More importantly, by doing so, they are dictating the pace of the electric car infrastructure.