Better Place Opens Up

Evan Thornley

Evan Thornley speaking to Better Place customers – Jan 2013

Last night saw a special meeting between Better Place’s complete new senior management team and many of the company’s most interested customers. On a stormy night we all gathered in Better Place’s Glilot visitor centre to meet, share plans for the future and pass back to the management team our thoughts as customers.

Inside their circular building, a converted fossil fuel storage facility we listened to the plans. At first in near darkness as a temporary storm related power cut hit us just at the start. It would have been nice to use the combined power of 100+ electric cars in the car park but that kind of backup power is not available today (though it will be in the future).

Evan Thornley, the new Global CEO opened the meeting. He described how he came to move from his position running Better Place’s operations in Australia to the global position today. Evan kicked off with the news that he has both made Aliyah and is close to completing his conversion to Judaism (which was underway before his involvement with Better Place). He certainly has more than a strong affinity for Israel and has moved his family here already.

He described the current situation but praised the company for the way in which it had delivered a working system. He made repeated favorable mention of Shai Agassi’s original vision and large parts of the execution to this point. If there has been a problem it was with over aggressive target setting. To have such high customer satisfaction levels for such a new product, in both Israel and Denmark is the achievement to be praised rather than missing unrealistic sales targets.

What he did explain well was the global strategy of Better Place to be a service provider for all vehicles that have a plug. He clearly expressed the view that battery switch is the best long term solution for electric cars. The bigger picture is that before this can be established in many markets cars like the Chevy Volt and Plug In Prius will sell in larger numbers. The inescapable truth, however, is that battery only cars are much cheaper to make and maintain than dual power train cars when made in similar quantities and (as I’ve explained at length) the very best fast charging systems are still many times slower than a battery switch.

He explained how in markets from Hawaii to Australia, without battery switching, Better Place are the world’s only full service company for electric vehicles. The monitoring and fault repair systems they have deployed throughout their charge network are second to none. They have the most advanced demand management systems allowing them to work with power generators to tailer demand and make sure cars are charged with off peak, otherwise wasted electricity. This aspect, which has always made Better Place hugely important for countries with large supplies of unreliable renewable energy, has been massively overlooked and underplayed by the press.

Evan outlined how electric driving makes more sense the greater the number of electric km’s are driven. This is the paradox of electric vehicles today: the shortish range of batteries make them suited to low mileage city drivers while the economics work for high mileage drivers. Better Place, can make this work and battery financing is a major part of this.

So media reports a few weeks back, which had made suggestions that Better Place was abandoning Battery Switch as it’s core technology, were wrong. The commitment to this is strong, but there is a realisation that Better Place will have to make money across all parts of the electric car support business.

Questions of how Better Place has been treated in the Israeli and world media came up and Evan’s message was they know they’ve been mauled. To a certain extent there wasn’t a lot of point in fighting back too aggressively but with a renewed marketing push in Israel that would change.

Evan also explained how he was opening up the architecture of many of Better Place’s systems, both in car Oscar and the back end systems that interface with power companies. A tie in with Waze could be possible in the future for example. That’s an important philosophical change that will have positive benefits down the line.

Evan then handed over to the new CEO (and CFO) for Israel, Alan Gelman who was previously with the huge phone company Bezeq. He spoke in Hebrew and started by giving his cell phone number and direct email to all present. He’s happy to hear from any customers. He gave a breif introduction of himself and his commitment to Better Place.

Peter Economides speaking to Better Place customers - Jan 2013

Peter Economides speaking to Better Place customers – Jan 2013

Next up was Peter Economides. He’s a South African of Greek descent who now lives in Athens. He got up and immediately told us how, just as he was driving in a Better Place car to the meeting he pulled up at the traffic lights next to a customer. He exchanged a look and a wave and both waited for the lights to change. That customer was me and when we pulled up alongside each other in the car park I introduced myself. He pointed me out to the audience.

He then explained how his first 10 minute drive in a Better Place car destroyed his Porsche. After driving an electric car for the first time he flew home to Greece and immediately realised his prized Porsche was a second class vehicle compared to the Renault Fluence Z.E. Like the rest of us there, he just doesn’t like driving infernal combustion engine cars any more, no matter how expensive or exclusive they are! In his words the electric car has destroyed the residual value of his Porsche.

Peter Economides: “Better Place around the world is the coolest and sexiest brand out there!”

Peter described how he’d been called by Steve Jobs to a bankrupt Apple. Together they came up with the Think Different campaign and began the process of creating one of the world’s most valuable companies and brands today. He directly ascribed a large part of Apple’s success to evangelical, early adopting pioneer customers. Just the same sort of people who have bought Better Place cars and to whom he was talking last night. He lavished thick praise on all of us for being bold enough to take a chance on such a new concept and product.

He fully understands the value of so many customers who are so passionate about their cars and I got the impression that when the re-boot of the marketing in Israel does come it will be something completely different from what came before. It’s clear that, like me, Peter was blown away by the actual driving experience of electric cars. That’s never properly been explained to people in Israel or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world. Tesla thrives on this, but their product is still so niche and expensive, they’ve never had to market it to a mass audience directly.

The marketing failure in Israel was my main criticism in my Times of Israel oped and Peter Economides gave me a very good impression the company would do this correctly now.

Idan Ofer - Renault Fluence ZE Wheels

Idan Ofer – Renault Fluence ZE Wheels

Idan Ofer talking to Better Place customers Jan 2013

Idan Ofer talking to Better Place customers Jan 2013

Last night was also the first time I’ve seen Idan Ofer. He is Better Place’s Chairman and one of the most successful businessmen in Israel. He spoke in Hebrew. He talked about how he drives exactly the same Renault Fluence Z.E. as I do. Well not quite exactly the same. You see he had his car shipped to Italy and back (remember he owns Zim Shipping lines) to have a stunning leather interior put in. His car was parked out the front so I have a couple of pictures. If I understood correctly the interior work cost €12,000 not including shipping and import/export fees. I have to admit it looked gorgeous. Every other part of the car (except the wheels) is exactly the same as mine. Obviously, because of switch, he uses the regular battery.

The team then answered questions and listened to customers. While most were positive, there was some dissent especialy from someone about the state of public charging in Jerusalem: there are nowhere near enough spots and these are routinely blocked by ICE cars. Evan pointed out that in Europe and the USA there is often legislation to reserve electric car spots just like those for disabled drivers. I’m torn on this: I’d prefer if government didn’t have to be involved but there is a serious education problem. Public charging can reduce the load on the switch stations dramatically IF it can be relied on. That just isn’t the case today.

Idan Ofer - Renault Fluence ZE Interior Front

Idan Ofer – Renault Fluence ZE Interior Front

The announcement that three further switch stations are opening within a few days was also greeted with a round of applause.

Another point of contention is the lack of a switch station on route 2 somewhere between Tel Aviv and Netanya. Plans for one have fallen through a number of times.

Evan did, however, re-set expectations: there is not going to be any major investment in new switch stations for some time to come until subscriber numbers are quite a bit higher. I don’t think this came as a shock to anyone there.

Asked about when we might realistically see battery upgrades, Evan was mildly evasive. He is unwilling to make promises that will be broken so I don’t see a problem with this. Those of us using the car today live with it’s current range. All of us could use an extra 30 or 50 km now and then and that reduces the traffic through the switch stations. I for one wouldn’t expect to see any useable upgrade for at least 18 months to two years.

Saul Singer

Saul Singer talking to Better Place customers Jan 2013

The meeting closed with a few words from Saul Singer, co-author of the book Startup Nation in which Better Place features so heavily. He spoke of the decision which led to them featuring Better Place in the introduction. Not an obvious move because there is always the risk with a book on startups that some will have failed by the time the book comes out. Saul is, of course, an owner too and I exchanged emails with him about range and the Oscar navigation system soon after he got his car.

I left with a positive feeling. I also spoke with some of the other Better Place executives from Australia and Denmark and I honestly believe they have a fine, focused team.

Personal transport is moving to electricity and away from oil. Whichever way that happens, and no matter whether we jump straight to battery powered cars as we have in Israel or via plug in hybrid cars like the Volt or Plug In Prius, Better Place can support electric drivers in a way nobody else is offering. At the same time they can provide tremendous benefits for infrastructure companies and that combination is their unique difference and what makes the company valuable.

Huge thanks due to fellow owner, Erik, for his live tweeting of the event which served as an invaluable notebook for this write up.

I’ll end with what I’d like to think of as my electric car manifesto:

It’s time for electric car drivers to stop being defensive: especially in Israel, with a fully operational network of battery switch stations. 

My Electric Car is BETTER than any liquid burning car. Period. It’s not the same, it’s not as good, it’s BETTER. 

It drives BETTER, it smells BETTER, the service that comes with it is MUCH BETTER. The price is even BETTER but even if the price was the same as driving a burning car, it would be worth it.

This car is my first choice: this car is just BETTER!


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.