Take Me to a Better Place

Electric Cars by Renault being recharged at Better Place's Visitors Center

Many industrial facilities offer interested fans of their products tours of their production facilities. Probably the most common are wineries and breweries, and we have no shortage of either here in Israel.

But many places also have tours of facilities when the product is unique to that area. Whereas there may not be a ton of tours of ice cream production factories, many visitors to Vermont will pay a visit to the Ben & Jerry’s factory. Atlanta has the World of Coca-Cola. And does anyone go to Hershey, PA without paying a visit to Hershey Park? (Okay, some of these are more than just factory tours, but that’s how they all began!)

Well, Israel now has a new tour to add to this general variety, but it is also unique in many ways. It is not a food or beverage facility, and is a great advertisement for the high-tech, start-up style endeavor for which Israel has become so well known.

Better Place is a company that was founded a few years ago by Shai Agassi, an Israeli who became a huge success at SAP. He left the computer industry to focus on his vision of bringing oil independence and reduced pollution to the world via a shift from the traditional (yet outdated) gasoline-powered cars to electric vehicles. Before I describe the visitors Center they have established in the Tel Aviv area, let me tell you a bit more about the company itself.

Recognizing that the main problem to date with large-scale adoption of electric vehicles has been recharging times and long-distance driving, Better Place developed some “out of the box” solutions. One is building a large scale recharging infrastructure, but the main innovation came with the development of a removable battery that could be switched out of a car in just a few minutes. Thus, instead of waiting for the battery to recharge, a long-distance driver would be able to get a fully-charged replacement battery in less time than it takes to fill a regular car with gas. Such swapping stations, sort of resembling car washes with automated robotic battery switchers, would also be part of the infrastructure that Better Place would build.

Working model of how the battery switcher works.

Israel has agreed to be one of the first test markets for the Better Place system. It was a logical choice, both due to Agassi’s nationality (and the location of the company itself), but even more so because Israel is in many ways a “land island.” Due to the unfortunate political situation, people rarely drive from Israel to any surrounding countries. Thus, almost all cars driven in Israel remain within the tiny strip of land that this country covers.

The poor relations that Israel has with its neighbors, a negative situation in general, became a positive for testing such a system as Better Place envisioned. Whereas it would be difficult to build out the initial infrastructure in the U.S. or even in Europe, Israel is a perfectly manageable test market! There are other plans to develop systems in places such as Denmark, Hawaii, Australia and California.

The plan is to launch here at the end of 2011, but they have already started a different kind of smaller scale operations in Tokyo. Another of their plans which will hopefully expand to other cities around the globe is to replace taxi fleets. Taxis contribute to a large amount of pollution in downtown areas, while the cars don’t actually travel extreme distances. Thus they are prime examples of cars that could easily be replaced with switchable-battery electrics. So far, the system is operating only on a small scale in Tokyo, but they have had no problems to date.

Me driving one of the electric cars at the Better Place Visitors Center

So overall, the Better Place idea is one that many people, in Israel and around the world, have been getting very excited about. So when I heard that the company had opened a new Visitors Center in Pi Glilot (between Tel Aviv and Herzliya), and that there were free tours and the chance to test drive one of their electric cars, I was very excited to go for a visit. So I finally went last week with a couple of friends.

The center has a lot to offer and is a fun (if somewhat gimmicky) place to learn about the company, its vision, the benefits of electric vehicles and how their system works. The entire tour, along with test drive, takes around one and a half hours. It starts with a movie that explains the “problem” and proposed “solution” that Better Place offers. Then you go out and take a short test drive. The car is impressive for its performance, speed and comfort. (It is worth mentioning that the cars currently at the test site are not the ones that will be for sale next year. Those are still being built. So these cars do not have removable batteries, but they are manufactured by the same company and have the same “guts.”)

Lots of recycling at the Better Place Visitors Center

Next there is a second movie-type presentation, focusing more on Israel specifically and the business of the company. Finally you go out to a tent and see a working model of the battery switching station. While this one had the car raised up to make the robotic switcher visible, the actual stations will have the mechanics below ground with cars driving into a car wash-type building.

Interestingly, when I was at the Better Place Visitors Center I ran into Elhanan Brown, a tour guide I know, who had brought a family group that was in Israel for a wedding. I had already been thinking that it would be a good place to take the right kind of group, so I figured I’d ask him how he worked it into his overall tour.

I emailed him afterward, and Elhanan told me that in addition to the regular “traditional” sites, he arranged for a number of “optional tours” that the group could attend, and this was one of them. As I had thought, he told me he felt it could also be a great stop in a more “conceptual day” tour.

I think it was a great place to visit for Israeli innovation and entrepreneurship, ecology, sustainability and the future of the world. Seriously, I loved the place. I spoke to them about bringing high school groups to them… Better Place said they had educational programs about young innovators (the Shai Agassi idea), and I’m definitely going to try and incorporate this into tours that I lead.

A few final notes. Firstly, the site is a bit gimmicky as I said, but not in an offensive way. Recycling is obviously a big concept there. The site itself (Pi Glilot) is an old oil storage facility, and the Visitors Center is built inside of an old water tank that was there in case of an emergency with a neighboring oil tank. The seats in the first movie are all recycled from old cars. Even the free pens look like they are made of cardboard instead of plastic on the outside. Nice to see, even if a bit obvious.

Also, in case anyone should raise the issue, the current solution only solves part of the problem. Israel’s electric grid is still largely powered by coal, so switching vehicles to electric doesn’t really reduce any pollution. Well, of course this is not in Better Place’s control, and in my opinion it is simply a matter of time before our grid is powered by green and renewable energy. Everyone in the country recognizes that it is of strategic and environmental necessity for us to do so, and thus it is just a matter of time. Better Place’s public recharging areas will have solar panels, which will help to cut down on how much these cars impact the grid. But this will not be a 100% solution. And still, the system will at least centralize the pollution over the power plants, instead of spreading it all over the country.

Finally, it should be noted that the Better Place Visitors Center is not a production facility of any kind, nor is it the site of corporate offices. It is simply a stand-alone facility that was built solely for publicity purposes. I don’t think this is a bad thing, just something to be aware of.

Bottom line, the Better Place Visitors Center in Pi Glilot is a fun and interesting place for anyone to visit on their own, and can also serve as a great element in a larger tour focusing on certain specific topics. Check it out!

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