SAN JOSE, Calif. In 10 years as many as a third of all new cars sold could be battery-operated electric vehicles. They will sport on-board electronics that alert drivers when batteries are low and direct them to the nearest location where they can get a charge or even swap in new batteries in the time it takes to get a fill up at a gas station.
That's the vision of startup Better Place (Palo Alto, Calif.). Jason Wolf, the company's vice president for North America, will sketch out that future in a keynote address Thursday (April 29) at the Embedded Systems Conference.
Vice President, North America, Better Place
"I think in 20 years the majority of new vehicles sold could be electric vehicles," said Wolf in an interview with EE Times. "People who project in 15 years the penetration of EVs will only be three to five percent will look as ridiculous as those who predicted years ago the world would only need a handful of computers," he said.
Better Place is expected to announce as early as Monday (April 26) it has opened its first battery-swapping station in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. A major taxi operator there will use the station to service three electric taxis running as long as twenty hours a day in a demonstration of the Better Place concept.
But the company's first major pilot starts in earnest next year. It is beginning a program to equip the state of Israel with the infrastructure it needs to support wide use of EVs.
Better Place will install about ten switching stations and more than 1,000 charging spots in Israel by the end of the year. It has also underwritten the purchase of as many as 100,000 Renault Fluent EVs over the next five years for sale in Israel and Denmark, its first big pilot locations.
In addition, the company is designing a navigation system and service to be installed in EVs to monitor batteries and direct drivers to nearby facilities as needed. It is based on an Intel Atom processor and Microsoft software.
In total, Better Place expects to spend as much as $150 million to install a base infrastructure for Israel. To outfit the U.S. for EVs could cost as much as $10 billion, Wolf estimates.
So far Better Place has raised a whopping $700 million to establish its vision. "When you are creating a new market, you have to create an end-to-end solution and you have to provide everything in that solution," said Wolf, who hopes to create similar infrastructures in areas including California, Hawaii and Ontario.
Better Place faces a range of challenges bringing its vision to reality. Perhaps the largest of these is getting battery and car makers to adopt a standard for their packs.
Such a standard would enable Better Place to create automated road side stations that can swap the batteries for drivers planning a trip longer than the 40-100 mile range EV batteries can typically support on a single charge. However high-density lithium ion batteries and the electric vehicles that would use them are still in an early stage of development, observers say.
"Standards are for mature markets, but these cars and batteries are still in a very early stage of development," said Atiq Raza, a serial entrepreneur serving as interim chief executive at Seeo (Berkeley, Calif.), one of a dozen new battery and EV startups.
The fact that so far only Renault seems to have signed up for the Better Place concept indicates the startup's chances are "not looking good from that standpoint," said Larry Fisher who directs the emerging technologies program at ABI Research.