In what I think is a first for me, my twittering and blogging scored me an invite to an international conference. Via twitter I was contacted by the organisers of a major one day conference on the investing in the future of transport.
Organiser Anne Mcivor reached out to me and invited me to come because the event featured an award for “Cleantech Investment of 2011”. The $200m investment in Better Place by G.E. at the end of last year was one of those featured and as Better Place have no operation in the UK, they had nobody to send. I made clear I was just a customer but would be delighted to attend.
My first thought was how to get to City Hall (the seat of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson) right next to Tower Bridge at 8am. There are two ways to get there: on the Tube or by car. By car would mean paying a £10 “congestion charge” and probably £20 or £30 to park and Tube would be annoying and still not free.
I went for option C. Ring up Renault UK and ask for a Twizy electric car which I’ll talk about in another post. This has a number of advantages. I don’t sit next to anyone smelly, it is electric and pays no congestion charge and it’s so cool and new the organisers will find me a free place to park it as a display vehicle!
The conference started with a stand up breakfast and networking session. I was told I would give a short presentation during this and had a few points sketched out in my mind.
In the end I was quickly called up to the podium and given just a couple of minutes to introduce myself. I tried to make the point that discussion of Better Place should move beyond whether it technically works: it does. I told the crowd the elements of customer service and support for making electric vehicle driving are key to their success. And so far, Better Place have not put a foot wrong for me.
Perception of Better Place
That short introduction served the purpose of identifying me and from then on I was approached frequently with questions and for discussions. I have to say there is a deep pool of almost resentment toward Better Place: many feel they are trying to tie up a market which should be open. They think a loose conglomeration of cheap “fast” chargers (which are at best 8 times slower than a battery switch) will be enough to get people to give up their liquid fueled cars.
I have to say the organisers tried to squeeze far too many speakers into the day and so one minor delay at the start morphed into a huge backlog and many interesting speakers being cut short.
The results speak for themselves. Only in countries which have aggressively given incentives like free parking, free road tax and huge tax rebates have EVs sold in any quantities. By comparison Israel’s support (a few thousand shekels reduction in import duty allows Better Place to be price competitive on the car) is mild.
And there is still no other viable way to make long trips anywhere in the world in an EV except by buying very expensive cars with huge batteries or accepting you’ll spend a third of your journey time drinking coffee and waiting for chargers.
The main speaking part of the conference was kicked off by Quentin Wilson, a former Top Gear presenter and now an advocate of electric cars. He personally drives the plug in Vauxhall/Opel Ampera (in the states this is the GM Chevy Volt). He said one thing which disturbed me: a call for yet more government subsidies and help. I just don’t see this working.
Hyundai had sent an experimental hydrogen fuel cell powered car based on the ix35 cross over SUV. It’s a smaller brother of the Santa Fe I just bought and I wanted to drive it. Hydrogen fuel cell cars contain a massively strong and heavy tank to store incredibly dangerous high pressure hydrogen. This is then combined with oxygen in a fuel cell (without burning it) and this give out electricity and water. The rest of the car is pretty much the same as my battery powered Renault Fluence ZE.
It was no surprise, then, when I drove with Hyundai’s chief engineer next to me, that it felt great: much as my Renault feels so much better than it’s petrol powered cousin. With only six of these cars in existence, and plans to make 1000 next year, it’s probably a $15,000,000 dollar car I drove.
But the trouble with hydrogen is making it and distributing it. Nobody in the whole world has explained how those twin problems can be solved and the expense of doing both makes Better Place’s battery switching look cheap. If Hyundai would just stick a Better Place compatible battery in the ix35 they’d be selling like hot cakes in Israel. For more on what Robert Zubrin calls the “Hydrogen Hoax” look here. In only one thing is Zubrin’s piece from 2007 slightly wrong: he doubted they’d make viable cars. I can confirm the cars exist but the mechanism for refuelling them is far from ready.
The day concluded in the offices of Norton Rose. A huge global law firm. Walking into their building with a few other delegates from the conference, one chap remarked “who are these people?”.
The extravagance and opulence of this huge building filled with lawyers is breathtaking. The man making those remarks is trying to get a small business off the ground in the UK, a business that will make real commerce, create real jobs and generally drive the economy forward in a positive way.
He is very unlikely to ever be able to afford offices like those of Norton Rose. Somewhere along the line our model of compensation for effort within an economy has gone wrong.
After delicious canapés and (for me) non alcoholic drinks the award for Cleantech Investment of 2011 was given to ABB who make and run fast chargers. That was somewhat of a relief for me, I don’t think it would have been appropriate for me to receive a prize on behalf of Better Place.
After a long day (including plenty of tweeting) I Twizy-ed home all electric in 45 mins (beating the tube and a walk from the tube station) by at least 25 mins.