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Better Place - EVs for the real world
by IKE 19-Aug-2011 00:35

Is this finally the time when electric vehicles will become mainstream? Better place may be a deciding factor. The small company from Israel, founded four years ago by Shai Agassi became a major player in the EV sector with major partnerships and ambitious goals. The proposition of better place is the integration of electric vehicles to the lifestyle and infrastructure of a city or even a complete country. They campaigning electric vehicles as complete replacement for internal combustion engines not just as another solution.---

Better place covers the complete spectrum of electric vehicle design use and operation. As stated on betterplace.com the parts of the ‘solution’ they offering are: batteries, switch stations, charging, ev driver services, ev network software and standards.

Most of their work is similar to that of other companies, automotive or not. The research for more efficient batteries, users interface that informs the driver about range and recharge stations and the complete integration of electric vehicles are a common goal. Better Place mostly also acts like systems integrator, by implementing technology from partners like Renault-Nissan or A123Systems combined with their own proprietary technology.

The core product is the ownership model and especially one of its parts, the battery switching stations. The user doesn’t own the battery; he or she pays a monthly fee for the right to use one. When discharged, the -independent from ownership- battery can be switched for a charged one; the driver doesn’t own a specific battery, just the right to use one at any given time. Of course the vehicle can be plugged to one of the charging stations, all part of the providing infrastructure. The accompanying software, both client-side (at the car) and in the supporting structure (stations) will optimize the use. A driver is presenting with various choices depending on the trip it plans (ex. stop for charge for a given time or swap battery) and the system will know the condition, use and status of every battery, switch station or charging pod.

Electric vehicles have their drawbacks. Batteries are bulky and expensive but the latest EVs aren’t that heavy and their price are almost reasonable for what they offer. However the main obstacle for the widespread adoption of electric vehicles is the recharge time. Batteries need at least some hours to recharge and people will have to either wait or simply plan ahead. Even if almost all every day drivers travel at far shorter distances than a contemporary EV’s maximum range there are two cases where one might need more range. The obvious one is the need for a bigger trip either planned or not. The other one is the sense of freedom that at any time the car is able to travel me at wherever I want. This may be a very serious deterrent for the public. The popular show Top Gear has over-emphasized (a kinder way of saying that they lied) the range and recharge time problem during features about the Tesla Roadster and Nissan Leaf. The first case ended with a lawsuit and the second with serious reactions. Top Gear is mostly scripted and a work of fiction, however even if those cars weren’t presented realistically the show reflects the attitude of the general public towards them.

As portrayed in the video above the automated battery swap is not a simple procedure. The switch station is extremely complicated. The station must handle a variety of batteries, accessed via the vehicle underside (there is a even water spray to clean the area!) and charge them.

Could this be a viable solution? Hardly. The swapping solution is obviously costly both as an infrastructure and as a resulting fee but if there is a widespread network of charging stations, battery swap will rarely be needed. Only in case of a spontaneous decision for a longer trip or an emergency a swap will be needed.

In that context the switch stations of better place make perfect sense. This is not a replacement for the petrol filling station or even the charging plug. Switching stations will probably exist as an additional measure when one needs the extra range or forgot to charge. Most importantly, the driver of an electric car will always know that even with an additional cost he or she has practically unlimited range just by switching the vehicle’s battery even if it is never to be used.

In reality better place have every reason to succeed as an organizer or technology integrator, providing and incorporating the technology, the network and the accompanying software for their optimum use. Despite being in the frontline, the battery switch stations are an overkill that is expensive to develop and borderline useful. However the reassurance it provides could be the only thing able to overcome the anxiety of limited range and time consuming recharge that holds back today’s EV market.

More info: http://www.betterplace.com

(images and video: Better Place, 80/20 )

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