Critical Section

a Better Place?

Friday,  09/05/08  09:41 AM

(coming to you from a UAL jet somewhere en route from LA to Boston...)

Wired - the future of the electric carWired's cover story this month is  The Future of the Electric Car, about Shai Agassi and his company Better Place.  He has a pretty innovative vision.  Instead of building electric cars and selling them, he wants to build a network of charging stations and give cars away, then charge for access to the network.  A sort of weird melding of the business model of cellular phones with the technology of electric cars.  One advantage of this approach is that range isn't as much of an issue; if you could charge your car "everywhere", how far would it have to be able to go on a charge?

{I have one of the longest commutes to my office of anyone I know, 140 miles.  That is easily possible with many electric car designs.  It is trying to make them go 300 miles which is tough.}

From the Wired article:

Agassi dealt with the battery issue by simply swatting it away. Previous approaches relied on a traditional manufacturing formula: We make the cars, you buy them. Agassi reimagined the entire automotive ecosystem by proposing a new concept he called the Electric Recharge Grid Operator. It was an unorthodox mashup of the automotive and mobile phone industries. Instead of gas stations on every corner, the ERGO would blanket a country with a network of "smart" charge spots. Drivers could plug in anywhere, anytime, and would subscribe to a specific plan—unlimited miles, a maximum number of miles each month, or pay as you go—all for less than the equivalent cost for gas. They'd buy their car from the operator, who would offer steep discounts, perhaps even give the cars away. The profit would come from selling electricity—the minutes.

Better Place AutoOSA key is the AutOS (diagramed at right, click to enlarge), the network which provides electricity to the cars.

  1. A special key fob linked to the car indicates the status of the battery. If the logo is throbbing blue, the car is fully charged.
  2. The driver unplugs and heads out. The software analyzes the first few minutes of driving and guesses the destination based on past history: "Work?" it asks. The driver speaks a response and the system determines how much energy is needed for the day.
  3. During the commute, the location-aware system finds and displays three open parking spaces near the office that are equipped with Better Place charging spots.
  4. An automatic arm extends to plug into the car. The spot then communicates with the control center, which anticipates the driver's energy needs so as to allocate power economically. It might, say, limit consumption during expensive peak hours. The driver gets a text: "80 percent charged."
  5. An unexpected meeting comes up. The driver enters a new route, and AutOS determines there is insufficient charge to get there. The driver orders a battery swap.
  6. AutOS finds the most convenient battery-exchange location and books a bay. The old battery gets lowered onto a hydraulic plate, and the car moves forward on a car-wash-style track. In five minutes, a fully charged battery is in place.

This is the kind of "blue sky" idea that looks better on paper than in actual execution, but Better Place does seem to be getting some traction.  At least, they've raised $200M, gotten the attention of Shimon Peres, and made the cover of Wired.  To say nothing of appearing on my blog :)


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