What Better Place’s bankruptcy tells us about the future of electric cars

May 27, 2013

Some notable news in the electric-car world: Better Place, the Israeli company that once hoped to revolutionize the auto industry with its innovative battery-swapping stations, has filed for bankruptcy.


(AP)

The idea behind Better Place was always intriguing to many people. The knock on electric vehicles has long been that the batteries are too expensive and charging them up can take 30 to 90 minutes or more.

Better Place's founder, Shai Agassi, had a novel way around this: Customers would buy the electric cars, but Better Place would own the batteries. When drivers needed to recharge quickly, they could simply swap out their batteries — in just a few minutes — at a Better Place station.

The vision never quite worked out in practice: As Marc Gunther explained in detail here, the company ran into regulatory hassles in Israel, its big testing ground, and only Renault signed up to build an electric sedan. As of March, Better Place had only sold 750 cars in Israel and was losing some $500 million. Agassi himself had left the company in 2012.

Over at Quartz, Todd Woody offers up some theories on why Better Place failed in Israel while Tesla, the other much-hyped electric-car startup, has succeeded in the United States (at least so far). One key was timing in how they built their charging infrastructure.

Better Place spent hundreds of millions of dollars building its pricey battery-swapping stations (about $500,000 a pop) before having customers in place. Tesla, by contrast, has managed to build its Superchargers for less money (between $15,000 and $250,000) and tends to build charging infrastructure after customers have ordered cars  — when the demand is there.

One interesting question, meanwhile, is whether battery-swapping could ever catch on. After all, it does have a certain appeal as a way to speed up charging times. Recently, Green Car Reports noted that Tesla appeared to be mulling over the idea in its latest quarterly report:

Other factors that may influence the adoption of alternative fuel vehicles, and specifically electric vehicles, include ... our capability to rapidly swap out the Model S battery pack and the development of specialized public facilities to perform such swapping, which do not currently exist but which we plan to introduce in the near future.

A Tesla spokesperson told AutoblogGreen: "We don't have any comment on battery swapping right now or timing of further announcements. But we'll let you know when we do!" So it's entirely possible that battery-swapping could resurface at some point, even if it doesn't look like the most promising model at this point.

Further reading:

--Better Place was supposed to revolutionize electric cars. What went wrong?

--Here's Steven Mufson's look at Tesla's recent success and why some analysts worry it might be a bubble. Note that the company has been dependent on credits from California's "zero-emissions vehicle" program.

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Ezra Klein | May 27, 2013