You would think that electric cars might be perfect for Israel. In a country where gasoline costs nearly $5.50 a gallon even during the Coronavirus price drop, people should be clamoring for a solution to fossil fuel addiction. But as the owner of this car (and the CEO of the company that sold it) learned, a bright idea isn’t always enough.
Welcome to Little Car in the Big City, where we highlight fascinating cars we found walking around a town that is known for being uh... more prickly..? than everything else, but where every car is fighting to stand out:
New York, New York. Tel Aviv, Israel.
This Renault sedan is a Fluence Z.E. that was built to interface with the Better Place mobility concept, a pre-Tesla vision for electric cars founded in 2007 that was built on battery-swapping and subscriptions instead of outright ownership.
Shai Agassi, Better Place’s brash former SAP-exec CEO, envisioned a reinvention of the relationship between drivers and their vehicles. Rather than buying a car outright, drivers would buy access to their vehicles along a model that Agassi was fond of comparing to how you buy a cell phone. The model was supposed to separate the cost of ownership from the cost of the cars’ batteries, which was important for a few reasons.
First, Better Place’s model attempted to bypass the issue of range anxiety by building a network of battery swap stations. If you owned your battery, you’d have to go pick it up when you swapped back.
Second, back in 2007, battery technology was far less advanced than it is today and Better Place knew that. If the batteries all belonged to the company, they could be upgraded more easily, distributing upgrade costs and therefore encouraging people to take the risk of electric car adoption despite the limited range afforded by the vehicles immediately on offer (around 80 miles).
And so after a meeting between then-President of Israel Shimon Peres and then-Nissan-Renault Chairman Carlos Ghosn at Davos in 2007, Better Place linked up with Renault and Nissan. That partnership with a major manufacturer pushed things into high gear and allowed the company to built pilot programs. Located in Israel, Denmark, and Australia, the pilots offered Nissan Qashqais and Renault Fluences like this one and sleek white battery swap stations already open to keep them going. It was all really promising.
But, as you might already know, Israel is a country based on utopian ideals that don’t always pan out. Theodor Herzl, regarded as the founder of modern political Zionism, saw a future Jewish state as a German-speaking cultural paradise with Wuppertal-style hanging trains and no army. What we got instead is Hebrew (no real qualms there), record-setting traffic congestion, and... an army. A regrettably rather busy one at that.
And so, like most of the utopian ideas here, the dream never really became the reality. Despite nearly a billion dollars raised, the company only managed to get about 1500 drivers behind the wheels of their Renaults and Nissans, stunting the program in its pilot stage. By 2013, the battery-swap stations were gone and the company had filed for bankruptcy. The dream never made it.
One friend of Agassi’s told Fast Company that the very flaw in the plan was its most radical feature— the reinvention of car ownership along the cellphone model:
“Shai is a friend and an amazing guy,” says Gadi Amit, founder of NewDealDesign, whose firm designed Better Place’s charge spots. “One of his flaws is that he tends to overrationalize things and he misses cultural and human connections.” Amit points out that Agassi’s central thesis–that people wanted to buy car service the way they buy phone service–was flawed. “Nobody loves their wireless carrier,” Amit says. “They love their iPhone.”
But while the first part of that quote is what doomed Better Place, the second part is what we’ve got demonstrated here. The owner of this Better Place Fluence loves their iPhone. Today, nearly seven years after Better Place folded, someone is still driving their car.
What’s most amazing about it is that it is deprived of its killer feature. There is nowhere left to swap out its special battery. That means that it, like all of us in lockdown, is restrained to its own special radius of confinement. For us pedestrians, it’s 100 meters right now. For this Renault, the fence is likely somewhere around 25 miles when you account for battery capacity loss and traffic.
And yet it’s still out there, registered and in use. It’s sometimes easy to forget this project ever happened these days (except when Ghosn’s participation raises feathers across the border in Lebanon) because there aren’t many other electric cars on the market here right now, but whenever I see one of these rare cars still in use (there are a few more than this one), I get hopeful that electrification will still allow people like Agassi to imagine how cars will change for the better.