With no local fanfare or announcements, electric car network provider Better Place has started delivering cars to its first paying customers in Israel.

One the first customers is David Rose, who reserved his car in October 2011. His home charging spot was installed a month after he submitted his reservation, and he waited until last week to receive his car.

Better Place has had a fleet of around 100 Renault Fluence ZE cars in the hands of employees since January, who use them on the country's roads.

In Israel, Better Place sells the Renault sedan without a battery. The sale is combined with a battery lease and a mileage-based subscription plan that includes the cost of the electricity necessary to drive those miles.

Electricity is supplied at owners' homes, public charging stations or via automated battery-switch stations that can replace a drained battery with a full one in 5 minutes. Each of these supply sources is operated and paid for by Better Place.

Installation of the home charging station, which draws electricity from a separate supply, is included in the package cost. Higher-mileage subscribers (those who contract for more than 16,000 miles per year) get two charging stations, usually for home and work.

The subscriber sees no bills from the electric utility for the added power devoted to car charging.

Controversially, no electric car will be permitted to operate in Israel without this subscription package. Legally, charging electric vehicles from normal domestic electricity supply is not allowed.

Fully networked smart grids--and Better Place has the only one at present--are the only allowable outlets to recharge electric vehicles, in the name of protecting Israel's electric grid.

Renault Fluence ZE electric cars in Israel, provided by Better Place [photo: Better Place]

Renault Fluence ZE electric cars in Israel, provided by Better Place [photo: Better Place]

Aside from the Renault Fluence ZE available through Better Place, no other plug-in electric vehicle is offered for sale in Israel today. This has been a source of criticism as it sets Better Place up as the sole supplier of electrified personal transport.

Rose's car was delivered to his home on a car transporter with a fully-charged battery. He voluntarily opted to take the car with a full pack of promotional stickers and labels announcing it as an electric car.

The car replaces a Mazda6 sedan, one of the most popular mid-size cars in Israel and one that's heavily used by fleets.

Renault Fluence ZE electric cars in Israel, provided by Better Place [photo: Better Place]

Renault Fluence ZE electric cars in Israel, provided by Better Place [photo: Better Place]

Better Place says its Fluence ZE is competitive on price and features with the smaller Mazda3 compact. Rose calculates that at the current pump price (roughly $8 per US Gallon), he will save at least $200 per month after paying the fixed subscription cost for electricity.

Rose says the car will be used primarily for his wife's drive to work, a round trip of 66 miles through the northern hills of Israel above the Sea of Galilee (known locally as the Kinneret).

After his first drive along the route, the car returned home with 26 percent charge remaining in the battery. That reserve correlated well to the prediction shown by the integrated GPS system.

Rose says the GPS system has already alerted him to heavy traffic, leading him to deviate from his usual route: the crowd-sourced iPhone app Waze gave him similar information. He's already noticed, however, that slow-moving heavy traffic extends the car's range.

Rose is now waiting for his wife's employer (an Israeli regional council) to give belated permission for Better Place to install a second charge spot at her office--as included in his subscription plan--to allow all-day charging.

Renault Fluence ZE electric car belonging to Better Place user David Rose [photo: David Rose]

Renault Fluence ZE electric car belonging to Better Place user David Rose [photo: David Rose]

Better Place has not yet opened its network of battery-switch stations to its customers. The firm date for opening all 40 stations is June, and the company says it has advised customers who take early delivery of their cars of this limitation.

The switch stations are now in advanced testing; I've previously been through one during tests.

Aside from the switch stations, customer subscription plans give them unlimited use of the public charging stations that Better Place is already operating in malls and various locations across Israel. Those spots are all relatively slow Level 2 stations, not DC quick-charge stations.

Until the network of switch stations is fully operating, however, Rose can't consider driving 110 miles to Tel Aviv without having to stop at a shopping mall for a few hours along the way.

He's had one problem with his home charging station. On his way back from a trip, Better Place called to say the company wanted to send a technician for a routine inspection of his home charge point. He set a time for the following morning.

When he returned home, Rose found one side of his ground-mounted dual charging post had stopped working. He used the other side, but that failed overnight. Fortunately the inspection visit the next morning returned it to operation.

Rose says he's enjoying the car tremendously: "I get a real kick out of the turn-on beep, and then silence".

He says the car attracts plenty of attention at traffic lights, "especially from children sitting in the back seats of other cars".

He feels duty-bound to pull away quickly to show off the electric car's acceleration, he says, which surprises many.

He's eagerly waiting for battery switch stations to come on line and open up the whole of Israel for him, traveling on nothing but electrons.

Brian Thomas ("Brian of London") emigrated from the U.K. to Israel in 2009. He has placed an order for and will soon own a Renault Fluence ZE sold through Better Place. He owns and operates his own import company in Israel with more than 15 staff. He regularly blogs at Israellycool about life in Israel, technology and business topics.


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