Battery swaps: clever technology, but no customers
Battery swaps: clever technology, but no customers
Battery swaps: clever technology, but no customers

Electric Vehicle company Better Place has filed for bankruptcy in Tel Aviv, an event treated by most as sad but inevitable.

The innovative company had at its core technology that combined pioneering “smart grid” infrastructure with battery swapping technology installed in stations. But, despite  the massive achievement of developing the technology to make electric vehicles a practical alternative, the company failed to attract customers.

Better Place’s idea was that drivers would swap the batteries for full ones in under two minutes, the time it takes to fill a car with petrol. Software monitors the state of the battery and manages the interface with the electricity grid, alerting the driver when near depletion and shifting recharging times for the batteries away from peak times. The battery swapping stations were automated and enclosed – drive up to the pad and let the machine do the rest.

The firm started in 2007 and quickly grew to at least appear like a global company. By 2009 the company had attracted a tier one automotive partner, Renault-Nissan and launched networks in Israel and Denmark. Despite various partnerships and demonstrators elsewhere in the world, the company never gained a significant foothold elsewhere and had only limited success in Israel and Denmark.

The problematic part has proven to be customers, those choosy important things at the end of a supply chain. Better Place’s customers buy the EV up front and then lease the battery from Better Place, paying a subscription adjusted to the amount they drove. The business model was chosen to be as close to the existing set up as possible.

As the company admits in its press statement, customers is where the business model fails. The Better Place way is attractive, not just in environmental terms, but also in engineering terms. In many ways, it is a better way of doing things. But the rest of the automotive industry failed to fall in neatly behind Renault-Nissan and supply Better Place compliant “quick-drop” EVs. Instead most have followed the route of convincing consumers that EV’s supported by DC fast charging are sufficient.

The single model of car Better Place could offer doesn’t satisfy the hunger for choice consumers demand in the 21st century. Plus Better Place’s target customers received mixed messages – there is little incentive to buy into Better Place when everyone else is claiming DC fast charging is sufficient.

Better Place has been a brazen attempt at reshaping personal mobility and will be remembered for pioneering some innovative technologies. I was interested when I saw the first press release from the firm in 2007 and surprised when its founder, Shai Agassi, agreed to be interviewed by PE. The company was founded on technology and  cared that engineers believed in the viability of its proposition.

It’s a shame the company has gone under, but is not by any means the end of the road for electric vehicles. An idea before its time, but probably not the last we have seen of its battery swapping and smart grid technology.



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