Last week, we shared with you our first-hand experience of driving an electric car through a Better Place battery swap station in Israel. 

Publicly, especially outside of Israel, Better Place’s concept of switching out depleted electric car battery packs for fully charged ones at its proprietary automated switch stations is what the firm is best known for.

As we discovered on our recent trip to Israel however, the battery swap stations are just a tiny part of an holistic technological solution for electric car drivers that covers everything from charging stations through to route-planning, battery maintenance and grid power management.

Integration: the heart of Better Place

One of Better Place’s first tasks as a business was to design and build a fully integrated computer network, linking its operations center to each and every car, charging station, and battery swap station together. 

Taking 4 years to develop, 400 in-house engineers and nearly 1,000 additional engineers working with partner firms, Better Place’s operations center and data network allows it to know the status of every device on its network. 


Better Place Battery Swapping

Better Place Battery Swapping

By connecting every device, Better Place says it can remedy problems quickly, and ensure that customers aren’t left without service if a charge or battery swap station unexpectedly fails. 

It does this by requiring each charge and swap station to report its status at regular intervals. If a charge station fails to report in, or reports a fault, Better Place can send engineers to rectify the problem. 

Meanwhile, its operations center sends notifications to any customers in the area through the telematics system found in each car, directing them to nearby alternative refueling as required. 

Oscar: part GPS, part telematics

When we drove the non-Better Place version of the 2012 Renault Fluence Z.E. in November last year, we were guided on our test-drive by the built-in TomTom navigation system found standard on most modern Renault cars. 

In Better Place cars however, the TomTom system has been replaced by Oscar, Better Place’s own onboard telematics system. 

Combining the functionality of a GPS with the sophistication of a fully-networked battery management system, Oscar is the driver’s first port of call for all matters related to battery charging. 

Thanks to two-way communication, Oscar can not only provide real-time rerouting around congestion, but it can also ensure that customers don’t run out of charge en-route. 

Better Place Battery Swapping

Better Place Battery Swapping

There’s more.

Because Oscar differentiates between individual drivers, it can provide accurate range predictions based on each person’s individual driving style and history.  

Better Place also claims the system is aware of weather, road type and road conditions, meaning it can predict range based on the particulars of the route map -- not just past driving history.

Reach less than 20 percent full en-route or have a range at destination of less than 20 percent, and Oscar will offer to route you to the nearest battery swap station. 

In most of Israel, these are spaced every 25 miles or so.

Better Place Battery Swapping

Better Place Battery Swapping

Grid management

Better Place’s technical integration doesn’t stop at the cars and the swap stations, however. 

The virtual smart grid of interconnected charging stations, cars and battery swap stations means that Better Place can help the Israeli grid ensure large numbers of electric cars charging at night doesn’t mean the nation will suffer brownouts. 

After all, as Better Place admits, around 95 percent of customers will only need to charge their cars at night, using battery swap stations only rarely. 

When parking up and plugging in, Better Place cars won’t start charging immediately, unless they have less than 20 percent charge remaining, or the driver has overridden charging timers in order to obtain a full charge. 

Instead, they will communicate with the operations center, detailing their battery capacity, along with any departure timers set by the driver using the Oscar onboard system, or Better Place’s smartphone app. 

Then, as Better Place customers plug in for the night, its operations center initiates charging on a priority basis, filling up cars with the lowest battery packs or earliest departure times first. 

In this way, it not only improves battery health by ensuring that battery packs don’t sit fully charged for hours at a time, but it enables Better Place to inform utilities of excess power demand ahead of time. 

As one engineer put it, “I can call up the utility, and tell them I’ve got 500 electric cars set to start charging in 1 hour. By giving the utility a heads-up, we can make sure they have excess capacity ready and waiting when we need it.”

Better Place Battery Swapping

Better Place Battery Swapping

It also works the other way: if the utility finds the demands on its network are too great, it can request that Better Place dial down charge rates to ensure the infrastructure can cope. 

It’s this software that Better Place claims will enable it to add 2 million electric cars in Israel without requiring any updates to its electrical grid - that’s more than 9 times Israeli’s entire new car market.

The ‘what ifs?’

Even with all this integration however, there’s always the chance that someone will run out of charge. 

With charging stations located throughout every city and battery swap stations located every 25 miles or less -- that’s less than one quarter of the estimated range of the 2012 Fluence Z.E. -- Better Place is confident that won’t happen very often. 

When the worst happens, Better Place has fitted breakdown trucks of its partner assistance service with portable charging stations, enabling cars to charge up even if they’re being towed. 

Better Place also says it will always ensure cars with less than 20 percent remaining charge get priority charging, sufficient to enable them to travel to the nearest battery swap station if longer-distances are needed in an emergency.

Better Place Battery Swapping

Better Place Battery Swapping

Finally, to counteract the hardened electriphobics, Better Place allows customers the option of requesting immediate charging when plugging in, although it notes that in its test phase, most customers stop using this feature after a few weeks of driving.

Complicated, or essential?

After visiting Better Place, we’ve become impressed with its integrated and forward-thinking implementation of smart grid technology.

But is all this technology essential to help ease gas car drivers into electric cars, or is it overly complicated? 

Let us know your thoughts in the Comments below.


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