A requiem for a Better Place? In 2007 Israel’s high-tech pioneer Shai Agassi switched gears from software at SAP and moved to sustainable transportation. All too familiar with oil embargoes, and Israel’s isolated position in the energy market, Agassi proposed a new deal, a new way of driving around Israel using an all electric vehicle. The car would also mean a great deal for air quality in Israel’s congested cities.
He called the company Better Place, and with Renault in France, developed a switchable electric car battery so that electric car drivers could drive with confidence: switching batteries could be done in minutes, sometimes faster than a fill up at the gas station.
Electric cars will probably be the future for all, but there needs to be a way to charge depleted batteries quickly and safely. Better Place seemed to be the only company in the world who could find a way to turn that vision into reality. And they were almost there.
But that vision died on Sunday: after six years and $850 million in financing, Agassi’s electric car company declared bankruptcy in the Lod Court.
The writing was on the wall: Agassi had been fired from his position some six months earlier, and news of a troubled company – including layoffs – had been leaking slowly into the press over the last half year.
And yesterday the final blow was sent to shareholders, and the press as the Better Place Board of Directors wrote: ”This is a very sad day for all of us. We stand by the original vision as formulated by Shai Agassi of creating a green alternative that would lessen our dependence on highly polluting transportation technologies.
“While he was able with partners and investors to overcome multiple challenges to demonstrate that it was possible to deliver a technological solution that would fulfill that vision. Unfortunately, the path to realizing that vision was difficult, complex and littered with obstacles, not all of which we were able to overcome. The technical challenges we overcame successfully, but the other obstacles we were not able to overcome, despite the massive effort and resources that were deployed to that end.”
Better Place is not the first electric car to fail. The electric car company Fisker Automotive declared bankruptcy in April.
Way before this century, the first rechargeable battery electric car was invented by the French physicist Gaston Planté in 1856, and later in 1878, it took a Methodist minister named John Wesley Carhart to get an electric car “Spark” to travel long distances.
But when Spark scared an expensive horse to death (it belonged to the industrialist J.I. Case) the car was banished from the city. The idea would have to wait for Karl Benz and then Henry Ford to bring it back to life.
Electric cars have not yet reached a critical mass to make them meaningful, but as General Motors showed us recently, declaring bankruptcy isn’t always the end of the world for a company.
You can be sure that as the headlines of the Better Place demise wind around the world environmentalists and electric car enthusiasts everywhere will still be rooting for Better Place, in its current form or in some new hybrid technology that will be able to green the way we drive into the future. And Israel will always be part of that story – even if only in the history books.