Last night I had the pleasure of participating in a social media event at Better Place's Israel Visitor Center. Better Place is a radically innovative company with a futuristic product. And unlike so many futuristic innovations, Better Place is not just a dream. Our future has arrived.
I first heard about Better Place four or five years ago when the Israeli, Tech and Automoative press were going crazy over Shai Aggasi's vision for Better Place. I later watched his TED Talk, and carefully read every piece of news that came out about this wildly different company. And after years of anticipation, they are here.
What is Better Place?
Better Place is a radical rethinking of the electric car concept. We all know that oil dependancy is bad news. From pulltants and the environmental impact of drilling through price fluctuations and economic impact, down to reliance on foreign and often corrupt governments, we're long overdue for change.
But most electric cars have been unrealistic compromises. The electric car was like the intel phone - always a few years away. More recently, fully elecrtic car owners have had to accept both limited ranges and limited speeds. Better Place has a way around all of these challenges.
- Smart charging stations in every home, as well as almost in every public parking facility allow the driver to tap their account card, and recharge their car from almost any parking area.
- High capacity batteries deliver a range of about 100 miles. This is far enough for roughly 2 hours of driving and can cover most people's daily commutes.
- Battery swapping stations allow drivers to swap out their low-charged batteries for fully charged replacements at no additional cost. This enables unlimited range. Swapping a battery takes less time than filling a tank of gas, and the process is fully automated. The driver drives onto a platform and stops. The floor under the car opens, and an automated robot makes the swap. Simple, clean and fast.
- Electricity is purchased by the mile (or kilometer) in preset plans or in bulk, much like cell phone plans.
- Better Place is the underlying solution behind mainstream automobiles. Innovative, mainstream manufacturers have been able to utilize Better Place's electric solution to power next generation all-electric engines with plenty of power.
After years of media hype, one's natural reaction to anticipated radical change is doubt. Most of what we read in Popular Science and see at CES will never become part of our daily lives, right?
After years of planning, Better Place is now live in it's first country, Israel. The first changing stations are already online, hundreds of cars are on the road and thousands of charging stations are being built throughout Israel. Swapping stations will be coming online in the Spring. Of this year.
The future is here.
What About The Cars?
Better Place equipped cars are not three wheeled future cars. These are normal cars, manufactured by mainstream car companies that just happen to be using Better Place's charging and battery swapping platform. The Nissan/Renault Fluence ZE is a beautiful, everyday, normal-sized car. But it's missing a tail pipe. Because there are no emissions.
How Does It Drive?
The Fluence ZE is a truly unique car. And the wow starts when you turn the key. Because there is no noise. There is no traditional starter, or sound of an engine starting. There are no car sounds at all and there are no vibrations. The car is so silent that the designers added a start chime, just to let you know that it is on. During the demo drive, everyone that started the car had a little wow moment when they realized - That's it? It's on?
And then there's the drive. It's smooth. It's silent. It's beautiful. I'm not an engine geek, but there looks to be only one gear. Drive. And it does this extremely well.
The only drawback is trunk space. Much like the Prius, it looks like Renault chose to place the battery under the car and in the trunk, making the trunk far smaller than the typical car. This trunk should be fine for your average grocery run, but isn't going to fit a double stroller, a trip to Cosco, or two medium sized pieces of luggage.
The Added Bonuses
This was clearly a very well thought out driving experience. The in-board dash is fairly standard, with digital displays showing the equivalent of information a traditional car would display - estimated range, remaining charge (similar to a tank meter) and driving speed.
But the center console is something really special. The flip up screen includes not only the typical multi-media, phone and navigation options, but a dedicated customer service option as well as a smart charge management solution. The customer service option is simple - with the click of a button you are connected with their always-on support team who can do virtually anything, including pre-ordering your coffee to go at the next battery-swap station.
The smart charge manager is truly unique. This solution will look at your route, your current charge and will help you plan your trip to maximize your time on the road and minimize time spent traveling to and from battery-swap stations. The design is elegant, and the experience shows just how thought out a concept the limitless electric car can be.
The Renault Fluence ZE is priced to be in the same class as a Toyota Corolla or Hyundai i35 (Elantra) and the energy costs are promised to be offer real savings over traditional gasoline. I'm all for saving the environment and not supporting many of the oil production pipeline and governments. And with supporting infrastructure in place, the Better Place platform looks to be a compelling alternative solution.
The great looks, wildly cool technology and ridiculously smooth drive? That's all gravy.
And the most important part - my WIFE was impressed. And wants our next car to be a Better Place equipped car.