Better Place Battery Taxi
by Steven Chupnick
In 2011, the western automotive world reached a milestone when the Chevrolet Volt was named the North American car of the year, and the Nissan Leaf was selected as the European car of the year, signaling that the electric car is finally practical.
But in the Far East, the push to make electric cars practical has already entered a second phase. Last year, four converted Tokyo taxi cabs became the first EVs to use replaceable battery packs.
SHAI AGASSI: What we're doing is, we've put in a taxi station with 4 taxis that will drive around Tokyo just like normal passenger taxis. Pick up people, drive them around, bring them back to where they need.
California company, Better Place, built the first ever battery swap station in the heart of Japan's largest city.
SHAI AGASSI: Better Place is a electric car operator and a new type of company in the sense taking the place of what gas stations and oil companies did for gasoline cars for ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) cars. We do the same for electric cars.
Founder and CEO Shai Agassi's mission isn't to be a battery or auto manufacturer, but to build consumer confidence in electric vehicles.
Cars like the Volt or the Leaf have fixed batteries that can only be fully recharged by stopping and plugging in. This can take hours at minimum.
Cars that use the Better Place concept can quickly swap out a drained battery pack for a fully charged one.
SHAI AGASSI: Instead of bolting a battery pack into the chassis of the car, we have invented, we've created a device, a bay for the battery, much like a cartridge, that allows the battery to go in and out in a few seconds.
Plus, rather than the car owner paying for an expensive battery pack, Better Place owns the batteries and only bills for their charging and usage. The high cost of the batteries, along with range anxiety, are the two biggest concerns of consumers considering EVs.
SHAI AGASSI: The notion that we found with range anxiety, is not range anxiety, its freedom anxiety, it's the freedom to go wherever you want to go.
And what better way to test out this battery swapping concept than in the one vehicle that is almost always on the go in the crowded streets of Tokyo.
SHAI AGASSI: Now a taxi that has a switch station, around the entire city, anywhere they go they have a switch station, doesn't have any anxiety. They basically drive and drive and drive and drive, and when they feel that they depleted the battery, they go into a station and a minute later, they're back on the road.
59.1 seconds to be exact. Only a NASCAR pit crew can fill a gas tank that fast!
The initial 90-day trial began with these four Nissan Dualis taxis a year ago April with support from the Japanese government, Better Place continued their observations through the end of 2010. Because of the success in Japan, Better Place has already expanded to Copenhagen, Denmark, placing charging stations on the streets and opening their first dealership selling the Renault Fluence ZE - the first unlimited mileage electric car.
Better Place also has plans to launch a program similar to Tokyo's in the San Francisco bay area, this time with 60 taxis and 8 swap stations. It's an intriguing concept, one that could move electric cars from curiosity to cul-de-sac in record time.