Battery-Swapping Israeli Startup Better Place Is Dead

Better Place, the Israeli startup company that tried to reintroduce the world to swappable electric car batteries, is off to a place that is not better at all: bankruptcy.

It's a sad end to a company that raised $850 million in private capital and was previously lauded for having an extremely ambitious plan to get cars off fossil fuels.

The company worked like this: you, the consumer, purchase an electric car, which in this case was a Renault Fluence ZE sedan. You drive it to a Better Place station, and they swap out your empty battery with a fully-charged one in about the same time it takes to put gas in a conventional car. A subscription model meant you pay for the electricity you use per mile, not unlike you'd pay for minutes on your cell phone bill.

Battery swapping is hardly a new idea. It's actually one that dates back to the early 20th century, but Better Place brought it back in a novel way that attempted to address one of the primary problems with EVs: they take forever to charge, even if you're using one of Tesla's quick-charging Supercharger stations or something similar.

It all came crashing down this weekend as Better Place filed for liquidation. The idea may have been excellent, but it never attracted enough customers to be viable as a business, CEO Dan Cohen said in a statement.

"Unfortunately, after a year's commercial operation, it was clear to us that despite many satisfied customers, the wider public take up would not be sufficient and that the support from the car producers was not forthcoming."

But there were reasons for that. Better Place only ever established a few dozen battery swapping stations in Israel and Denmark, and as the Wall Street Journal notes, the large Fluence sedans never really caught on with buyers in those countries, who tend to prefer smaller vehicles.

Better Place had ordered 100,000 cars from Renault, but only sold about 2,500. They had abandoned similar efforts in Australia and in the U.S., where they were headquartered. In addition, the stations also didn't work with any other cars besides the Renaults.

There was also drama when founder and CEO Shai Agassi, wunderkind and subject of glowing magazine profiles like this one in Wired, was ousted by the board last year.

Also, Forbes' John Gartner says Better Place's technology was somewhat underutilized:

Despite the nearly billion dollars Better Place raised, the company made very little effort to develop an energy storage solution for its reserve battery packs, which could have generated revenue from utilities or grid operators. While neither of these options was a guaranteed success, they could have diversified the revenue stream during the years that the company was hemorrhaging cash.

Agassi told GigaOM earlier this year that he still believes in the swappable battery model, so maybe we haven't seen the last of him yet. The idea is one with a fantastic amount of potential. I still believe electric cars won't fully catch on with Americans until charging your battery is as fast and convenient as putting gasoline in a conventional car.

Maybe someone else can pick up where Better Place left off.

Photo credit Better Place