Clinton Told Better Place CEO: "Electric Cars Should Be Free"

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Better Place Battery Swap Station

Better Place Battery Swap Station

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As any entrepreneur will tell you, starting a business isn't easy.

Few know this more than Shai Agassi, founder of battery-swapping outfit Better Place. The company is making huge losses, has closed operations in some countries and even booted out Agassi himself as CEO.

Still, Agassi is one of few who can claim a former President of the United States helped him bring his dream to life--or at least, offered him some advice.

In a post on business networking service LinkedIn, Agassi details how the best advice he ever received was from President Bill Clinton at a conference in 2006.

Agassi hadn't yet started Better Place back then, and was instead thinking of selling electric cars and their batteries for around $32,000.

Speaking to Clinton, Agassi said he reckoned drivers would pay up the initial outlay for the savings they'd see over 8-12 years.

He recounts how Clinton absorbed his idea, before saying, "By the time you will convince the rich folks in Israel to try it, then get the average folks in Israel to try it, then bring it to the US for our rich folks... the world will run out of time."

It didn't stop there, either.

"You need to price your car so that an average Joe would prefer it over the kind of cars they buy today--an 8-year-old used gasoline car, selling for less than $3,000. As a matter of fact, if you can give away your car for free, that's a sure way to succeed." added Clinton.

A free electric car? That'd certainly get people interested, but the business case is harder to justify. Agassi said as much--"How do you give away a car for free and still make money?" he asked.

"I don't know... you're the smart man around here" replied Clinton. Agassi notes how it's funnier now than it was at the time, but it did lead him on to a different way of thinking. If not free, he'd reduce the price of the cars, and make people pay a monthly fee for the battery--bringing down the initial cost.

Better Place works on this basis using Renault's battery rental process. It also offers swaps to full, charged packs at dedicated stations around Israel and Denmark, the company's two main markets.

Slow sales and high losses are demonstrating just how hard it is to get people on board, but Agassi remains positive.

He cites how cell phone and satellite TV operators have enough of a margin from their service they can subsidize the products themselves--on the right cell phone contract, you can get a hundreds-of-dollars iPhone for very little, or even free.

Range limitations are the main stumbling block, suggests Agassi, but as battery tech improves he sees the Better Place business model becoming increasingly attractive.

The market will decide that, we guess--but if it works, Agassi has a former U.S. President to thank for the idea.


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Comments (16)
  1. " as battery tech improves he sees the Better Place business model becoming increasingly attractive". Yeah right, BP's swapping is supposed to be a system that avoids long charging times, but as battery tech improves charging time will continue to be reduced. So as battery tech improve no one will need their swapping services. And as battery tech improves the cost will go down so no one will want to get into the deceptive practice of battery leasing. Actually in keeping up with the news Better Place already appears to be becoming increasingly unattractive, especially to their many CEOs.

  2. I could not have written this any better, thank you, CDspeed. Contrary to some comments on this site previously, I don't hate Better Place and there probably is a niche somewhere where the business model may make sense for a few years. But, as CDspeed understands, as range gets better, the business model makes less sense, not more.

    I hope the company survives, of course, I just have to be honest in stating that I just don't see the need for it in most markets.

  3. The only way to shorten charging time is to deliver electrons more quickly.
    The most powerful car charger I can think of is the Tesla SuperCharger which at NINETY KILOWATTS requires up to 30 minutes to charge their big battery models.
    How many 90 kW circuits can be installed in the average neighborhood?
    Why would you bother when you can get a full battery in 3-5 minutes without leaving your vehicle?

  4. At the point when you need to use a Supercharger being that they are placed for highway use, you may have traveled somewhere around 200 miles. At that point I'd prefer to stop and stretch my legs, a nice 30 to 60 minute stop to charge and get a little something to eat would be great. And you know, batteries are evolving they won't stay the way they are now forever. One day they will charge in mere minutes and then, why swap?

  5. Stopping that lon doesn't work for a lot of people and only Tesla has chargers that powerful so anyone else is either taking longer or stopping several times.
    I expect lighter, cheaper, more durable batteries soon-ish but unless flow batteries or something like MIT's "Cambridge Crude" become practical, there's a safe limit to charging.
    Your average gas pump is equivalent to a 2 MegaWatt electrical circuit - good luck putting up a bunch of those every few blocks or having multiple ones at highway rest stops.
    If EVs become as prevalent as many of us hope, I expect that 10 to 20 yrs from now we'll be saying that Shai Agassi was a visionary and it's too bad we didn't listen.

  6. Batteries will have natural fast charging abilities soon enough so I doubt anyone will even remember Shai Agassi, in fact only those of us who keep up with electric car news even know who he is. There are people out there who don't even know who Elon Musk is, so no one will remember Agassi.

  7. Fast-charging only works if you can DELIVER the charge.
    Even if you can make a 100 kWh battery that can be safely charged with no losses in 5 min, then you need a dedicated 12 MW circuit.
    With 50% efficient solar PV,which isn't even on the horizon, you'd need 5+ acres to charge ONE car at a time.
    How do you propose to do this?

  8. I'm not going to propose anything I don't work for a battery manufacturer. Why don't you google fast charging batteries and start to see what the various companies and universities are coming up with. There are experts working on next gen batteries, you and I aren't going to solve anything replying to each other.

  9. I've been looking at battery tech for years and have asked the same question about how to charge batteries at least as quickly as one would fill a gas tank.

    The only responses are to use a range-extender or swap batteries. Without either of those, the practical limit for EV range will never exceed 300 miles under ideal conditions.
    Let me be clear - I can do just fine 80% of the time with a (real) range of 100 - 125 miles but on my typical long ride I don't ever stop for more than 15-20 minutes.

  10. Did you ever try giving technology time to evolve? There are a lot of people who are perfectly happy with electric cars the way they are now and know that the best is yet to come. Give it time.

  11. There are more comments in this thread
  12. Better Place (and the dialog above) is focused on charging speed. And Morin Moss makes a good point about the amount of power needed for fast charging. But fast charging is only relevant if the RANGE of your battery is insufficient for your daily driving. Once battery range increases to as far as you'd care to drive in a single day, all of a sudden fast charging becomes irrelevant. Just charge overnight which is lower cost, more efficient and easier on the batteries.

    So new battery tech that allows super-fast charging only would make the power delivery problem worse. But extending a battery's range reduces the peak charging power demands since they can be spread over an 8-10 hour nighttime period.

  13. It doesn't appear that you understand how difficult fast-charging truly is, especially once EV uptake becomes significant.

  14. Who are you talking to? If its me you were addressing, I know it's not easy but we don't know how it will be affected by evolving technology. We all know batteries will improve to do the things we want them to do. I never tried to even guess how it will be achieved.

  15. Fast Charging is an outlier. Normal charging takes 5-seconds to plug in an EVSE at home and charge overnight. Same for at work charging - plug in and walk into the building.

    Fast Charging is only needed for long distance driving and this is a rare feat for most people. And Fast Charging is not needed for the EREVs like Volts and PiPs. I consider my Volt to be much greener than my prior car (25-26mpg). Even at 76mpg, many BEV purists will call me a gas-hog. But I do know that for most EV drivers, it takes them 5 seconds to recharge. To plug their car in and go about their "non-driving" business.

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