It’s been just over two months that I’ve been taking part in one of the most ambitious efforts to retire petroleum.
On April 4, I was handed the keys to one of the first electric Renault Fluence’s released to customers in Israel. The Fluence ZE is currently the only model adapted for Better Place’s rather unique switchable battery system, although Renault reportedly plans to release an additional, smaller model within the year. Other than having an interior with no cup holders -- an ambiguity I attribute to a French cultural assault on coffee-to-go -- and more limited boot space due to the battery pack, the vehicle is very much the standard sedan.
Despite these drawbacks, the Fluence ZE is a worthwhile addition to the global fleet: unlike its gasoline siblings that tend to accelerate reluctantly, the ZE does so without a quiver, leaving its fossilized (fuel) competitors well behind at the driver’s will.
While the virtues of an electric engine are quite clear, it is also clear that everything else around the engine seems to limit its widespread adoption: from battery weight to charging time, mobile electric power seems to be weighed down by barriers preventing it from taking center stage in the global transport arena. This is where Better Place’s massive launch in Israel is rather instructive -- providing early insight to what a world with electric transportation might look like. Here’s what I’ve been able to see on the horizon of the EV trenches in Israel:
Wikipedia will be editing its “range anxiety” listing, mentioning it was a hoax.
I drive a lot by Israeli standards -- over 20,000 miles a year. My daily routine usually has me crisscrossing metropolitan Tel Aviv -- a land of asphalt and traffic jams. I also travel beyond the metropolitan area once or twice a week, like many of you out there. Despite my travel habits, it is doubtful I’ll be seeing a switching station or needing a daytime recharge more often than once or twice a week -- the frequency with which I used to visit gas stations and approximately the number of out-of-town visits I make.
So how much of a burden is the electric vehicle’s 80 to 90 miles per charge range? Well, when I get home from work I have the burden of plugging in the car before I seek out my children. I clocked less than 7 seconds with one hand tied. And once or twice a week, when range extension is necessary, I would much rather visit a switching station than a greenhouse-gas-and-fume-emitting, OPEC-controlled, range-anxiety-hoax-promoting gasoline station. If you relax and do the math, range anxiety simply dissipates with the morning smog.
Switching stations are the new-age car wash. That’s right -- don’t sit there imagining noisy auto repair shops or windy gas stations. You approach the gate, the station identifies the car remotely, invites you in using both the onboard display and external monitors, you stay in your car practicing your yoga while the system asks you politely to turn the engine off and ensure your car is in neutral. It then leads you along a conveyer through the car wash experience -- just without the bubbles, wet noodles or noise. Unlike the conventional car wash, children will rate this venue as boring and my dog too remained indifferent (her never-again real car wash experience was quite traumatic).
But for the rest of us, it’s a chance to spend two to five minutes on email, talk on the phone, or have that drink the French deprived us of with their anti-drink interior design. Whether it will be cool, useful or boring in a few months is hard to tell, but I can clearly conclude the occasional visit to a switching station is a far better experience than the one I used to have at the gasoline station -- try filling gas while practicing breathing routines.
The most game-changing technology Better Place introduced is its customer focus. Israel is known to be among the worst customer-service cultures globally. Really -- Israelis can irritate anyone, especially customers. Thus, it’s astounding that Better Place launched in Israel, one of the few smart-grid efforts I’ve visited worldwide, sensitive enough to create the magic critical for new technology adoption. And it’s such a contrast to its surroundings, it must be intentional. It’s a total experience: you get invited to sessions with professional driving instructors to help you overcome the notorious range anxiety hoax. Switching station attendees will walk alongside your car, explaining the new-age process verbally during your first switches (though they do not practice yoga with you). And on the phone, they’ll admit, “I don’t have that information” instead of wasting your time, and will actually get back to you within the hour with the information you need, whether it's the opening hours of a public charging spot or where you could find a certain function on the onboard computer display.
In today’s Middle East, that level of effectiveness in customer service equates to a new revelation. For all those out there giving clean technologies a bad name with their disregard to customer experience, visit Israel with your learning cap on -- you’ll get the best and the worst.
“It’s the economy, stupid.” While the original quote did not refer to EVs, it may as well have. The Better Place system took away much of the pricing barrier plaguing EVs by creating a model where the vehicle is purchased upfront but its energy -- the battery, much like its gasoline predecessor, is provided month-by-month by a service provider (Better Place, in our case). Thus, the Fluence ZE costs the same as its rickety gasoline equivalents -- no more than a Honda Civic, a Toyota Corolla or a gasoline-guzzling Renault Fluence. But then it starts saving you money bit by bit. Insurance is lower by approximately 35 percent and maintenance promises to be less frequent and/or costly. Finally, the big benefit comes from the energy: the cost of the mileage-based packages are about 25 percent to 30 percent less than the cost of the gasoline used for the same mileage driven on an equivalent gasoline vehicle. What’s better: it has fixed it independent of OPEC oil quotas, Chinese growth rates, American fuel consumption or Iranian nuclear policies. In my mind, that’s sort of cool -- call it strategic, if you will.
So what’s next in the trenches of Israel’s EV scene? Month-by-month, switching stations are coming on-line and will enable crisscrossing the country by the end of the year. Granted, Israel isn’t the size of China, the Australian continent or even New Jersey, for that matter. But the Israeli launch should enable smog-stricken metropolitan areas from Shanghai to London and from Sydney to Cleveland to imagine their own transition to a more sensible form of energy for transportation. A form of energy that actually has a future, not merely a fossilized past and present.
For Better Place, there’s a long path ahead. Although interest is high, the launch is excruciatingly gradual -- one switching station at a time, one shipment after the other of vehicles from Renault. Better Place will need to engage many more customers and a bunch of auto makers before they can cut a profit. A broader range of vehicle models (especially ones with coffee cup holders) will receive a warm welcome with Israeli early adaptors.
But there is a broader perspective.
Many in the cleantech arena these days seem in dire need of anti-depressant medication. After all, we’re at the bottom of the Gartner curve for cleantech and the picture is grim: a load of gold-rush-era companies are biting the dust, investors are hurting, vowing to do cleantech no more, government incentives are dwindling, IPOs are being pulled and public interest seems to have moved elsewhere. At a global scale, it’s easy to disregard a modest launch in a micro-country like Israel. But you must not underestimate the importance of Better Place’s understanding that it can radically change the rules of the transportation game with a less than perfect technological reality, as long as they solve the details of the customer experience.
There are now a number of emerging success stories with similar themes around customer experience. Most are still in the “too early to tell” category, and yet Opower, SolarCity, Tesla, and SodaStream, alongside Better Place’s launch, should keep us cautiously optimistic about what cleantech can achieve, if we keep one eye on our customers and help them navigate through the trenches of innovation.
Noam Gressel founded Assif-Strategies in 2001, an environmental management firm that provides strategic corporate consulting services while also serving as an accelerator for early-stage cleantech firms. Gressel is a co-founder and board member of two cleantech companies: Elysium Carbon Trade & Investment, a developer of greenhouse gas offset projects, and TransAlgae, an agricultural biotechnology firm developing algae-based crops. In 2008, Gressel joined Greylock Partners, a prominent venture capital firm, developing a cleantech investment practice at the firm.