Revisiting The Better Place Past
A couple of months ago I gave an interview to a journalist about Better Place. I picked him up near my office in my Better Place Renault Fluence ZE and drove him to the now stripped and abandoned switch station at Yarqon. That was the very first one I switched at and filmed. That was February 12th 2012, two years ago. It was before any customers got their cars and when it was only available for testing. The entrance to that amazing place looks like this today:
I then took him to the old visitor centre. In better days it looked like this:
Today it looks like this:
The first thing that Max (who wrote the Fast Company piece I’ll talk about in a minute) said when getting in my car was how close it felt to a Tesla Model S. I hadn’t been in one at that time so this was a very pleasant surprise. Stripping away tax imbalances the Tesla S is worth at least 3 or 4 times what the Renault Fluence ZE is worth. A few weeks later in New York I eventually test drove a Tesla and my abiding impression is just how good the Renault is for a fraction of the price. Clearly the Tesla is superior, but not by as much in as many ways as you think.
I let Max drive my car around the old Better Place test track a couple of times, dodging the overgrown weeds that seem to reach out and grab the car as you make the turn at the roundabout at the end. It’s profoundly depressing.
Here’s what I wrote on Jan 12th over two years ago. I still feel the same every time I get in my car and even the “too quiet” I’ve come to love and resent having to drive my diesel Hyundai for trips further than my car can travel on a single charge:
As far as I was concerned the science was in: the car would suck and be like driving a glorified golf cart. This would be especially because it is built around a Renault Fluence that, in petrol form, is not a great car and of which my company just returned a woefully underpowered version to our lease company.
But my mind was changed. I only drove it for a couple of minutes and will have a longer test on real roads next week but the thing was good to drive. A little too quiet for my tastes but the amazing torque characteristics of fully electric drive give tremendous acceleration at almost any speed.
I have a story to tell about the goings on after the bankruptcy. I haven’t written that, somehow I haven’t had the drive to do it. I don’t write for money, but I have to connect with what I’m writing. I actually get emotional about Better Place still. The promise was so great, the potential to change the world in a good way was there but many things went wrong.
So to come to Max’s piece in Fast Company: it’s a very good telling of the story. I knew most of this, I know some of the people he talked to (including a few who are not named) and until one of the principals of the company writes a book, this is about the best account there is.
Go read his piece. Any questions for me, put them in the comments.
“The technology worked, customers were satisfied,” says Pross, who in addition to being this particular car’s owner was a Better Place employee from 2008 until the bitter end, the company’s bankruptcy declaration in May 2013. He sounds heartbroken. “It would have been a revolution.”
Better Place was born to be revolutionary, the epitome of the kind of world-changing ambition that routinely gets celebrated. Founder Shai Agassi, a serial entrepreneur turned rising star at German software giant SAP, conceived Better Place “on a Davos afternoon” in 2005 when he asked himself, “How would you run a whole country without oil?” Four years later, onstage at the TED conference, Agassi, a proud Israeli with a bit of a Steve Jobs complex, wore a black turtleneck and promised, with the confidence of a man who has known the future for some time but has only recently decided to share his findings, that he would sell millions of electric vehicles in his home country and around the world. He implied that converting to electric cars was the moral equivalent of the abolition of human slavery and that it would usher in a new Industrial Revolution.