Some companies just rub you the wrong way.
I've never been a big fan of Apple, for instance. Most reporters hold them as an extraordinary example of fusion between technology and aesthetics. I just see them as an outfit that makes status symbols for people who pretend to disdain them.
In greentech, that company for me – the one whose business plan seems more shaky than sound – is Better Place. The well-funded company hopes to revolutionize transportation by building a network of charging stations for electric cars.
Consumers will pay to use to the charging stations, like a service, and get charged for how many miles they drive. The network fees will help subsidize the price of the car, which could become free in some circumstances. It's like a cell phone, the company argues.
To shorten the charge time, depleted batteries can be swapped for charged ones. The air gets clean, we stop using oil, money stops flowing to terrorist organizations and corrupt dictators. All thanks to founder Shai Agassi.
So here's what stinks. Disclosure: I have not contacted Better Place. This is an opinion piece, so it's very subjective. Also, note that I live in abject squalor compared to the guys who run Better Place. If you want financial acumen, talk to them. But here's my opinion anyway:
1. It Won't Plug Into the Wall: The cars, as it now stands, are designed to plug into charging stations owned by the company. If you want to charge at home, you have to get Better Place's charging station. If you find yourself stuck in Visalia and just want to unplug a Coke machine at the Ramada Inn, too bad. You need to charge at the company-approved outlet.
Why? Because under the Better Place cell phone model, you buy electricity from "The Man." That chafes against the core of what it means to be an American: That is, to be someone who is too lazy or un-surly enough to actually live peacefully within the terms of a contract. E Pluribus No Money Down. Deep down, I think even Europeans would get the willies about this. My German relatives treat their cars like a member of the family.
2. Automakers Will Make Cast-Offs for the Company: Everyone – General Motors, Toyota, Ford, Tesla Motors, Nissan, Honda, Fisker Automotive – will be releasing plug-in cars over the next two years. Put yourself in the shoes of a car exec. Are you going to make your coolest, most stylish cars for this network, or are you going to keep your flexibility? Does Ford push the Crown Victoria on the public at large, or government agencies?
3. It's Insanely Expensive: Better Place is essentially an electric version of ZipCar, the rent-on-the-spot car network. But if ZipCar actually had to build and maintain the gas stations its cars stopped at. We're talking huge amounts of real estate and lots of employees.
4. It Will Take Years to Pay Off: It takes about 15 years for the installed base of cars to turn over. Generally, about 12 million cars a year get sold. Some estimate that there are 625 million cars on the world's roads. Only a few hundred street legal cars will come out this year and next. Even if global warming accelerates and peak oil arrives in 2010, it is still going to take a number of years before enough people get rid of their gas burners and go electric.
Charging stations will be needed someday, so why not build them then? Building them now, when electric cars still cost a premium and few drivers exist, means paying interest on billions of capital while waiting for a critical mass of customers.
5. Battery Swaps Are Inane: This often gets skimmed over. You'll drive into the station, a robot or a person will swap out the depleted battery, and you'll get a fresh one and be on your way. All in three minutes.
The problem? The battery in an all-electric car isn't like that 20-pound thing in your car attached to two wires. These things will weigh around 500 pounds. I'm extrapolating here, but Better Place says the cars on its network will go 100 miles. Tesla's Roadster goes 250 miles and the battery weighs 1,000 pounds. The battery is also one of the most expensive components in an electric.
If you own the car, are you going to trust the guy sitting behind the counter selling champagne-scented air fresheners to swap out the heaviest and most important part of your car? And then trust him to replace it with a part from some stranger that – who knows – went hunting for coyotes in his economy car after a bender?
And just imagine the real estate needed to store these batteries.
Battery swaps are being used in electric buses in the U.K. – but the municipal bus agencies own the buses, the charging areas and the batteries.
6. Persistent Charging Kills Batteries: The company asks drivers to trickle charge while at work. Hmmm. Lithium-ion batteries can only endure so many charges before their ability to hold power begins to diminish rapidly. The old standard was 300 charges. Imara, Boston-Power and others have boosted it to 1,000 charges (see Boston-Power Gets $55M More to Produce Lithium-Ion Batteries). And that figure will grow.
But do the math. Two charges a day for three years is 2,100 charges. Whoops. It's going to take better batteries first. Automakers hate this.
7. There Are Easier Ways: Much easier. How about this idea. Just put electric charging stations at existing gas stations for a few thousand bucks. Let service station owners charge outrageous, but flat fees, for power. Just pull up and charge, if you need to. Hey, that's what Coulomb Technologies is doing.
And Four Why It Might
1. Embarrassment: San Francisco, San Jose, Israel, Denmark, Australia, Hawaii and other places have already inked alliances with Better Place to build charging stations in their areas. Politicians would rather post bonds than tell voters they screwed up. Thus, governments might decide to pay for this anyway.
And don't forget. Shai Agassi used to be the overlord at SAP, the software company that has sold billions to governments. He knows the psychology. Do not underestimate this.
2. Urbanism Is In: Everyone is moving to the city. Just like China. The country has more cities with 10 million people than I have blackheads on my nose. Megacities are sprouting in India, Malaysia, Africa and Central Asia. In the U.S., the upper-middle class is moving into condos and gang members are moving into abandoned subdivisions.
And in the city, who wants to own a car? The parking is a hassle and someone invariably will break in to steal the change. Transportation-as-a-service dovetails quite nicely with demographics.
3. Not Many Charging Stations Will Be Needed: "I think there's about 13,000 petrol stations throughout Australia. Our preliminary deployment plan currently estimates that we need 500 battery exchange stations," said Evan Thornley to Cnet Australia earlier this year.
4. In New Eras, Ambition Is Rewarded: Economic development tends to follow a set pattern: Discovery is coined and commercialized, a giant rises up to monopolize it, and it is then brought down after a fortune is made.
In the U.S., Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller an d others became titans and inspired antitrust laws. Ford had his era of dominance before competitors showed up. In South Korea, Samsung has almost been part of the government at times, and opposition to that control has grown. Bill Gates is no longer the titanically feared person he was just ten years ago.
We are moving toward a post-fossil-fuel era. It will be natural for a few people to become giants.
If people are burning Agassi in effigy in ten years, we can say that Better Place was a success.