It's got former SAP executive Shai Agassi as its founder, an eyebrow-raising $200 million in capital and a deal with the Renault-Nissan Alliance, the fourth-largest car company in the world. No wonder Project Better Place has helped launch batteries into the buzzosphere.
The company wants to battle oil dependency by building a vast network of battery-recharging and -replacing stations for electric cars.
And when the news broke last week that the Renault-Nissan Alliance would partner with Project Better Place to mass-produce electric cars in Israel, the world had seen nothing like it.
After all, the idea of an all-electric vehicle hasn't quite caught on in the United States. Existing battery technology doesn't suit the average American driver who wants to travel long distances without the hassle of having to recharge for several hours at a time.
In Israel, Better Place plans to construct a network of 500,000 recharging points, along with a business plan in which consumers purchase the car battery and subscribe to the energy supply in a system much like mobile-phone plans.
Israel makes sense as a target market for electric cars because most Israelis drive fewer than 70 kilometers per day, while the electric cars purportedly would be able to drive up to 160 kilometers before needing a charge. Israel's astronomical gas prices and its embattled relationships with oil-rich Arab neighbors are strong incentives to find petroleum alternatives.
Carlos Ghosn, the chief executive of Renault-Nissan, went so far as to say "it will be the most environmentally friendly mass-produced car on the market." With a grid that is planned to be powered by 200 megawatts of wind andsolarenergy, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert projected that Israel would be totally free from petroleum-powered transportation within 10 years.
But behind the frenzy of praise, battery experts told a different story, one of a potentially bumpy road ahead. For example, Brian Barnett, managing director at technology-research consulting firm TIAX, said a battery capable of transporting a car 160 kilometers would need to be so large that it might interfere with the cargo space and general utility of the car.
He also pointed out that creating a series of stations for changing such batteries would be complicated.
"Generally, that means our gas stations have to be a whole lot bigger than they are right now," he explained. "You'd have to have pretty big batteries and hoists to move them in and out of the vehicle. How long will it take from beginning to end? How are you going to have 1,000 of those a day that you swap out in a gas station?"
Better Place defended criticisms that its plans were lacking in feasibility and existing technology, saying that the battery will weigh about 200 kilos and have just less than 200 liters in volume.
"When you remove the propulsion system and the petrol tank from an ordinary car, and add instead an electric propulsion system and our battery, the total weight added is only 50 to 100 kilograms," a company spokesperson wrote Greentech Media via e-mail. "So will this compromise any aspects of the vehicle? Absolutely not."
Better Place also said that charging stations for swapping depleted batteries will feature a lane much like an automatic car wash, and that an automated machine will exchange the battery in less than five minutes.
"The main factor hampering a widespread migration to electric cars is [the] driver's fear of getting stuck without fuel; we have an imaginary need to carry at least 300 miles (483 kilometers) worth of energy in our tanks," the spokesperson wrote. "As part of the process of introducing a new product to market, there will be some challenges. However, drivers will have a number of options to charge their electric vehicles."
Renault-Nissan said that it will release the fully electric cars in 2011 or 2012, and that once the grid system is up and running, the whole package will cost consumers up to 50 percent less than a gasoline-powered vehicle, given the savings on gas and the EV's lifetime guarantee.
Better Place is not the only company that made announcements about batteries last week. Electrovaya, a lithium-ion battery company, also launched a low-speed electric vehicle this week, called Maya-300, after last week announcing a partnership with Malcolm Bricklin's Visionary Vehicles.
And in other electric-vehicle news, electric-sports-car startup Tesla Motors said it designed a new and improved transmission system and expects to roll out its first production Roadster on Tuesday (see Tesla Announces New Transmission). For more information about Project Better Place, see "Related Content" at the top right of this page.