What Is It Like Having A Battery Inserted Where The Sun Doesn’t Shine?

Yesterday I took my pre-study of the Better Place electric car (Electric Vehicle or EV as they are called by the cognoscenti) to the next level. I went for a drive with Tal (the Better Place guy) from their showroom and demonstration centre near Glilot to a battery switch station next to the Yarkon Interchange on Road 5. A 25km round trip.

Once again I found the car excellent to drive. It made me think of another car I drove many years ago: a Morgan Plus 8. For the non petrol-heads that is basically a wooden horse drawn carriage married with a powerful engine from a large Range Rover SUV. The one I drove had one of the most horrible gear changes I’ve ever felt with a super heavy clutch and a hard to move gear stick. The reason it reminds me of the Better Place Electric Car? The easiest way to drive that monster was to stick it in third and forget about the gears. It had so much power (but really it was torque) that it could pull away and accelerate from stand still in that gear.

I’m also testing a battery simulation tool on my iPhone and I’ll write more about that in another post soon I hope.

The Better Place Fluence ZE has that same feeling: only one gear and instant oomph no matter what your speed. Press and go. As we left the battery switch station I floored it as I turned right onto a divided highway. The motorbike just behind me couldn’t believe it. He stopped at the next light next to me to ask how I’d done that because a normal Renault Fluence can’t do that!

Without further ado, here is the video I took at the switch station. It’s rough and hand held and the first time through they didn’t turn on the in car notification system. We got that on the second pass. They’re in a test mode at the moment so we didn’t swap the battery from the car we drove to the station, rather we used one of the test cars they have at the station. Remember: the whole network is not scheduled to go live till June but from what I can see that is definitely easily achievable.

Driving into the station is just like driving through an automatic car wash. Once you’re level with a big yellow sign you put the car in neutral, take your feet off the brakes and let go of the steering wheel. The first step in the process is a battery wash but this wasn’t operating for us (the test car is pretty clean and there’s no sense using water now). That said, it obviously recovers and re-uses water so it’s overall water use won’t be significant.

The first point to note is that the car actually has a main battery pack for driving and a completely normal 12V car battery for doing the other stuff like running the lights, the entertainment and GPS system or phone integration. That battery also drives the ventilation fans but not the A/C. That’s important because when the battery is being switched, the car’s normal 12V battery keeps the music playing and the GPS working: if you want to check or change destination, choose your next playlist or maybe download a new app to the car (yes really, it has apps!) you can do all this even while the main battery is being swapped. All in all I think the main battery is disconnected for about two minutes.

Once you’re being pulled through the process you can feel the car being jostled a little to line it up and then it physically lifts a few centimetres. Sensors make sure nobody opens a door and the whole process will stop if that happens. On my second run through we had the benefit of seeing exactly what was happening on the in-car GPS screen. It shows you when the old battery is being taken out (which you can feel as the car shakes a little) and when the new one is being inserted. That you can certainly feel as the back of the car seems to give a tiny bump. There are a few quiet noises and the screen in the car seems to match up with everything that happens.

Once it’s done displays outside and inside the car instruct you to turn your car back on and drive out. It took exactly 5 minutes but I can see that they’re not pushing the equipment too hard and could probably knock some time off that if they had to. All in all, however, it’s really a pleasant experience.

You don’t have to breath in petrol fumes for one thing and there really is nothing much to do before driving out with a full battery.

Another short note: a week ago on the BBC’s Top Gear show, the presenters, led by James May, had a good laugh at the idea of pavements covered with charging cables snacking from cars into houses. The Top Gear presenters thought that it would be no time at all before kids (even ones old enough to be employed by the BBC as Top Gear presenters) would be unplugging electric cars “for a laugh”. Obviously the Better Place model doesn’t allow you to charge your car from any outlet, only the specially designed ones.

The Better Place charging points won’t allow this. When you connect to a public charge point you swipe an RFID card over the point and it then opens up. You insert your cable and this locks into position. At the car end as soon as you lock the car, the charge cable also locks in place. To remove your cable from the public charge point you again need to swipe your RFID card.

I’m sure a determined vandal could destroy these, but you can have your car scratched or tyres slashed too and that tends not to happen every day.

The charge point they install (included in the price of the car) at a user’s home already has a cable so you just need to take it from a hook on the wall and plug it into the car. You don’t even need to identify yourself when using your personal point at home (though you can choose to if you want).

The Israeli press has been let loose on the cars now and they’ve been pretty kind. As I’ve already written the financial case is compelling and the driving experience is good: it’s a family car not a sports car but it’s very good to drive around town.

JPost article: Better Place unveils battery-swap network

Walla article (Hebrew translated by Google): First test: Renault’s electric Fluence Better Place in Israel (Note that Google translate continuously mis-translates KPH into MPH and km into miles)


Brian of London

Brian of London is not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy. Since making aliyah in 2009, Brian has blogged at Israellycool. Brian is an indigenous rights activist fighting for indigenous people who’ve returned to their ancestral homelands and built great things.

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