Today marks my first anniversary driving a Better Place Renault Fluence ZE battery-electric car.

So it seemed appropriate to summarize my experience to date with the Better Place service, which has had some challenges but is still very much in operation.

I paid around $45,000 upfront for my car and four years of service, which covers all my electricity, battery switching and various other costs for 4 years and roughly 50,000 miles (80,000 km) of driving. All the details can be found here.

Driving and switching

Like the archetypal, mildly obsessive early adopting electric-car driver, I kept a careful record of my first year of ownership.

I've covered 11,650 miles (18,750 km). I also covered 937 miles (1,509 km) in borrowed Better Place cars, so my electric driving total for the year is 12,410 miles (19,970 km). It's not much compared to some high-mileage U.S. drivers, but not bad in a country smaller than New Jersey. I know other owners who have covered nearly double that.

I would estimate 80 percent of my energy is delivered at home, overnight, via the Level 2 charger that Better Place installed in my condo's underground garage. I have also charged on Better Place's public Level 2 charging network at least 20 times.

What's unique to Better Place in Israel and Denmark is the ability to swap out a depleted battery pack and replace it with a fresh one in 5 minutes. There is no fast charging (it would seem slow next to a 5-minute switch to 100 percent charged).

I've switched batteries 89 times, though only 73 of those were completely necessary. (In the early days I showed off the process to interested passengers when it wasn't completely necessary to complete a trip.)

This amounts to one switch every 170 miles (275 km). Shai Agassi's intention was to replace a weekly fill up with gas with a weekly battery switch for out-of-range journeys.

The 100-mile (160-km) range that Renault promised for the Fluence ZE is not normally achievable. A range of 75 miles (120 km) is more realistic, and for this reason I've switched more than Better Place would have anticipated.

Better Place user David Rose w/keys to Renault Fluence ZE electric car in Israel [photo: David Rose]

Better Place user David Rose w/keys to Renault Fluence ZE electric car in Israel [photo: David Rose]

Looking at my rate of switching, however, it has fallen since the network was completed. Today I switch roughly once a week.

I've kept updating the data I mentioned back at 100 days, and so I have a new graph showing my daily driving distance distribution.

Long Distances in A Day

My longest recorded day's driving occurred in February, when I followed a normal day's commute and business use with an evening trip down to Eilat. 

That day I covered 251 miles (405 km). I needed four switches to get to Eilat and four on the way home. My hotel had a number of Better Place-installed and maintained charge spots. They were  mostly blocked by ICE cars but at some point during the weekend a spot opened and I quickly ran to take it.

There is a switch station right at the entrance to Eilat so it's not a big deal starting the return journey with a depleted battery, but it's more convenient if you can charge at a hotel.

It may be technically possible to make the trip from Eilat to Tel Aviv with three switches, but I wasn't prepared to try--and functionally it makes little difference.

2012 Renault Fluence ZE electric car, powered by Better Place in Israel [photo: Brian of London]

2012 Renault Fluence ZE electric car, powered by Better Place in Israel [photo: Brian of London]

I've switched twice or more on 17 days, though some of those occurred early on when there was only one switch station open on the way to Jerusalem. There are now four or five depending on the route, so sub-optimal switches can be largely avoided--making Jerusalem a one- or no-switch trip (if I can slow charge in a mall parking lot.)

My most common out-of-range trip remains a run to Jerusalem and back, often skirting Ramallah just to the North of Jerusalem. This route has me covering 105 miles (170 km) in a day.

Another common trip is to Haifa and back, around 125 miles (200 km). I never consider driving more slowly to conserve battery range, and I've never turned off the air conditioning either. I've used the car's heater on the rare occasions it was needed.

Battery Switching

In the early days this was a bit of an event. An attendant would emerge from the station as you arrived, ask your name and offer a cup of water. Today it's a little different: I haven't seen an attendant at a switch station since the start of the year.

Better Place has quickly transitioned to unattended stations. In addition to the simple arm barrier, the stations now have roller shutters which keep curious locals from wandering inside them. These lift automatically as you arrive.

All the stations have big glass viewing windows to the side, and if they're located appropriately--there's one in an open mall car park in the North for example--they nearly always draw a crowd when a car pulls in for a switch.

I haven't experienced any failures during a switch, but one of my fellow customers has. On his way back to his home in Jerusalem he experienced a failure mid-switch. After a few attempts to remotely clear the problem, the Better Place call center advised him and his wife to leave their car.

The door to the station office was remotely opened, and the keys to a fully charged replacement vehicle were sitting on the desk. They drove home in that car, and the following morning their car was returned to them.

The whole failure and recovery took about the same amount of time as replacing a flat tire. Obviously the station was marked out of service for all other drivers, but this is automatic and nearby drivers receive an alert on their in-car Oscar telematics system.

Breakdowns

In one year, my car has failed me twice: the first was a fault that allowed the car to keep driving. Though I didn't know it at the time, I could have cleared that fault by driving myself to a switch station for a new battery. Better Place actually gave me a replacement car and took mine away for a few days.

The other fault was a failed motor. That required a tow truck and another replacement car, again identical to mine. Two days later my motor had been replaced and the car was returned to me.

Both these failures were dealt with brilliantly by Better Place and Renault together, and I can't fault the service.

Range prediction and software

In February Better Place issued a major over-the-air software upgrade to the Oscar in-car navigation and entertainment system. (As a note, Tesla was not the first company to provide this service, as Better Place has been doing this since January 2012--before the Model S was released.)

2012 Renault Fluence ZE electric car, powered by Better Place in Israel [photo: Brian of London]

2012 Renault Fluence ZE electric car, powered by Better Place in Israel [photo: Brian of London]

This update took away the pretty 3D navigation we had previously enjoyed, but replaced it with a more accurate state-of-charge prediction algorithm.

Since the beginning my car has been able to predict how much energy each journey would take. This was always accurate on the flat, but less so when climbing and descending hills. I find its prediction of state-of-charge at my destination to be far more useful than the reading of distance remaining. My car provides that too, but I rarely notice what it says.

The upgrade seems to have improved these predictions greatly. It is still a little conservative (overestimating energy needed) where there are long descents, but uphill it is now very accurate.

On the trip up to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a climb of 2,700 ft (800 m), it is now accurate to within 2 percent. Before one could arrive with as much as 10 percent less energy than predicted.

Oscar can also now predict negative values (previously it cut off at 0 percent), giving a much more useful indication of whether a particular trip is possible without switching.

Driving feel and car quality

I'm still very happy with the way the car feels. Acceleration is sharp and fast especially in town. The speed away from standstill is still breathtaking.

The Renault Fluence ZE is not a Tesla Model S, but it is much quicker than similarly sized gasoline or diesel cars: only rare and exotic performance models can beat me if I take part in traffic-light drag races.

The interior is still bolted together well, with no rattles and squeaks. Note that this car is built to a strict budget in Turkey. But because it's not exploding fuel in cylinders, the refinement inside is that of much more expensive cars.

This, for me, is the key to the joy of driving an electric car: When I'm sitting in traffic in Tel Aviv, I'm in a car that gives me the experience of something that costs twice its price.

Cost

I paid for my car and four years of Better Place service upfront in full. I was able to borrow the full amount at a favorable interest rate. I covered those costs in detail here.

Since then my motoring has cost me no more than my monthly loan payment, plus two flat-tire repairs, a few car washes, and the regular road tax fee (there's no discount in Israel for plug-in electric cars). 

The car requires a service every 18,000 miles (30,000 km) or once a year. This service cost me $180, around 30 percent less than a corresponding service on a normal car would have cost. Just oil and  filters together would have cost around $70.

Ownership

There is feeling of camaraderie amongst the many Better Place owners I've met in person and via social networks. Better Place have held meetings for as many owners wished to attend including the one I described here.

Over the last month, driven by Better Place owners but not restricted to them, plans for an electric-vehicle lobbying group in Israel have emerged--which I support wholeheartedly. Owners are now reaching out to local politicians and starting to lobby on behalf of all electric vehicles, even though Better Place still offers the sole plug-in car sold in the country.

Renault Fluence ZE charging at Better Place pubic charge spots in Israel [photo: Brian of London]

Renault Fluence ZE charging at Better Place pubic charge spots in Israel [photo: Brian of London]

In my eyes, Israel's government is doing nothing to support electric cars--and in some cases, actively blocking Better Place's progress. For details, see my article in the Times of Israel.

Imagine: Despite the massive private investment Better Place has made in Israel for both infrastructure and R&D, the government won't allow Ministers who request an electric car to have one (the new Health Minster has asked).

The ranks of owners are now swelling quickly, especially with many of Israel's largest companies buying or leasing Better Place cars for their employees. 

I conducted an unscientific poll of owners via the private Facebook group that many belong to. Out of 175 members, the poll was "seen by" 95 of whom 28 were very happy and 2 merely happy. No other responses.

There's not much to point out except to recall that one of Chevrolet Volt owners were 92 percent happy or very happy--the best results for any Chevy vehicle in history.

Better Place customers are pleased to see an improvement in the marketing of the car, but we still feel that public knowledge about Better Place and electric cars in general is very low.

Ads featuring real, happy owners instead of models are welcome, and having the car now on sale in shopping malls and department stores is also very good.

What could improve

There are a few in-car software improvements that could still be made. The car has no clock at all, and I'd like to see a much larger display of the time on it. Obviously range prediction can be further tweaked to improve accuracy.

There remains one major hole in Better Place's switch station network, which the company is well aware of. There were plans for switch stations closer to Israel's coastal highway that runs between Tel Aviv and Haifa, with a station just outside Haifa to the south and another closer to Tel Aviv but right on the highway.

Various problems stopped these being built, and in the current climate they won't be built anytime soon. This is a pity but journeys are still possible.

There is much more scope for municipal parking lots to add charge spots: Tel Aviv is well served, but Jerusalem and Haifa are far behind. It's hoped the lobbying group will help address this. Again, this largely isn't the fault of Better Place, which is ready to put in new Level 2 charge spots as and when property owners ask for them.

Most present owners accept the range limitations of the current car, but we do feel that slightly improved range (especially up to the 100 miles discussed before the Fluence ZE was delivered) would make life a little easier--and widen the appeal of the car.

But that's a common story among electric-car owners: once you've lived with daily recharging at home, range issues largely melt away.

Verdict

Overall, I'm very happy to have switched to an electric car as early as I did. I wouldn't be driving one today if it weren't for Better Place: I couldn't accept the range limitations without the kind of infrastructure we have in Israel.

An 85-kWh Tesla Model S is the only electric car that could have covered all but one of my journeys this year. But it costs far more than my Renault.

I've saved money, and I've more than enjoyed it: I honestly feel the car is worth more in this market than it costs today.

I wouldn't swap my car today for anything on sale in Israel.

Brian of London emigrated from the UK to Israel in 2009. He owns and operates his own import company in Israel with more than 15 staff. Today he regularly blogs at Israellycool.com about life in Israel, technology & business topics and, lately, his electric-car driving experiences.

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