Agassi told me hydrogen power is an “idiotic idea” because the infrastructure to support it would have to be created from scratch; in contrast, electric batteries rely on the existing power grid.
By 2020, Agassi predicts, half of all cars bought in the United States and Europe will be electric. Others say Agassi’s estimate is overblown. Renault’s Pélata says a better guess might be 10 percent. Rod Lache, an analyst with Deutsche Bank Equity Research, says Better Place could be a financial success even if it occupies a small niche. “It could get 10 percent of the market in Israel and still be hugely profitable. Beyond that, it’s hard to say.”
I caught up with Agassi at Better Place’s new R & D facility, in an industrial park east of Tel Aviv. Agassi, dressed as usual in black, was sitting in a windowless office with unadorned white walls. Carpenters hammered and drilled in the next room. “In Palo Alto I have a cubicle,” he said. “I don’t travel with an entourage. It’s all strictly bare bones.” He had flown from the United States for the final countdown to what his company calls the Alpha Project—the opening of the first switching station and a visitor center, near Tel Aviv. Some 8,000 people have dropped by the center this year to test-drive a Renault EV. Down the hall, in a glass-walled conference room, a score of Better Place employees were working out logistics, such as whether to locate the switching stations underground or at street level.
Next door a pair of software engineers showed me a computer program designed to regulate the electricity flow into the company’s charge spots. A recent simulation by Israel’s main utility indicated that the nation might have to spend about $1 billion on new power plants if every car was electric by 2020. But Better Place says “smart grid management,” or generating electricity only when it’s needed and sending it only where it’s needed, could reduce the number of new plants. Company designer Barak Hershkovitz demonstrated the company’s role in making the grid smarter: five electric cars hooked up at a charge post in the company garage used 20 percent less power than they would have consumed without smart-grid management. Likewise, he told me, to avoid straining the grid, a central computer could keep track of every car being charged in Israel and regulate the juice flow.
To Agassi, such problems are now a matter of fine-tuning. “If [the company’s] first two years were about using brains to solve a puzzle,” Agassi told me, “the next two years are about using muscle to install [the equipment] in the ground.” Soon, he says, gasoline-powered cars will be “a relic of the past,” and maybe ten electric-car companies, including Better Place, will dominate the global market. “Together,” he says, “we will have tipped the entire world.”
Joshua Hammer, a frequent contributor, is based in Berlin. Work by the Jerusalem-based photographer Ahikam Seri previously appeared in Smithsonian in an article about the Dead Sea Scrolls.