Will Israel’s Electric Cars Change the World?

Share |
Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Everything you need to know — the locations of switch stations and charging posts, the number of motorists already there, your own distance from each — is visible on a dashboard GPS screen. Employees have been testing the system for weeks, seeing, for instance, how much juice it takes to drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem with a car full of fat people, a carload of skinny people or just a car. By July, Better Place expects to begin taking individual orders for the Turkish-made Renault Fluence Z.E. (for Zero Emission), a four-door sedan that looks like any other car. Ordinary Israelis could be driving them as early as November.

“It’s going to depend on the price — of the car, and any charge for the battery, or charging the battery,” says Dror Aikar, a Hyundai owner waiting for a tour of the Better Place showroom that 75,000 people have already passed through. Within sight of the beach north of Tel Aviv, it was built on the ruins of an oil-tank farm. Aikar wants to help the environment, he says. “But you can’t do it if you don’t have the money to do it.”

The pricing will be in two parts: First there’s the car itself, which the consumer buys outright, except for the battery. That remains with Better Place, and comes with the “subscription,” which is what Better Place calls access to the power infrastructure to run the car. The model is cell-phone coverage, with a variety of rate plans that vary with how much you drive. Rates for Israel are not yet final, but in Denmark, where the company is also setting up, the lowest rate is equivalent to about $300 a month for mileage of 6,200 miles (10,000 km); the highest rate — for unlimited miles — is about twice as much. The customers also pay a one-time fee equal to $2,000, but even so, in both Israel and Denmark where gas runs about $9 a gallon, Better Place calculates that the typical customers would stand to save 10% to 20% against a comparable gasoline car — and enjoy most of its satisfactions. “The car is very, very, very fun to drive,” Agassi says.

The electric sedan Agassi says will change the world, well, feels like a regular car. On the test track, the Renault four-door (a retrofitted Laguna, the Fluences are not yet on site) zooms smoothly down the straight, silent and more comfortable than, say, a Prius. The one similarity is that from a standing start there’s a wee lag, more like the Prius than the G-force jackrabbit start of the Tesla, the torqued-up all-electric sports car with a base price of $108,000. “It’s sub–10 seconds zero to 60,” says Agassi, of his ride. “If you want to go zero to 60 in five seconds you want the Tesla. If you’ve got another five seconds to spare, I can save you $80,000.”