Thursday, September 18, 2008

Project Better Place, but probably not the US yet

A debate about ideas is a good thing, it helps to challenge assumptions, refine and discard non-workable ideas and arguments.  To that end, I'm happy with the recent inclusion on TreeHugger of some criticism of Project Better Place.  Ever since I first read about this system from Shai Agassi, I've thought it seems to be a great idea and model to experiment with altering the personal transportation infrastructure.  In the spirit of making an idea better by getting other people's takes on it, I avidly looked forward to reading the TreeHugger piece.

Unfortunately, like several of the other commenters on the article, I think the author has approached the Project, completely from the mindset of an American driver.  And as the project is currently designed, it does not fit that model of driving and is not targeted to solve the transportation needs of that audience.

To recap, the idea is that Project Better Place is going to sell electric vehicles for use in Israel and build a recharging and battery exchange infrastructure.  The batteries of the vehicles will be removable in order to enable quick changes should a driver not have time to sit and wait for a charge of the current batteries.  The battery recharge and exchange system will be sold in a similar way to a cellular phone, as a subscription package and the batteries will not be owned by the vehicle owner.  So far, Renault has demonstrated a vehicle for use with this system and Denmark and Hawaii are said to be investigating options for this could work for them.

Essentially the arguments are that because the project can't eliminate all gasoline usage, wouldn't work in areas with drive times over 80 minutes or any long drive, and the vehicles are undesireable the entire thing is a bust.  The author does point out that plug-in hybrid vehicles are on the horizon, and argues that these vehicles will be more effective and appealing to drivers.  In general I agree with that assessment, if you are considering US or continental European car cultures where driving several hundred miles in a day without stopping is considered a necessary feature of a vehicle.

I'd point to the number of high end, high range vehicles that have become available that could probably resolve the issue of vehicle desirability.  Fisker, Tesla and others are working on pure plug-ins giving consumers choices.  While non-trivial to engineer, its not impossible to imagine all of them sharing a common battery design, if not technology, to allow quick refueling at exchange stations.  Or simply quick charging at a high voltage EV charging station, which is also a part of PBP plans.

Would PBP work here in the US?  Probably not, because people want the single vehicle that they own to do everything they could ever want, no matter the frequency.  Gotta have a vehicle that is able to cart the baseball team or all of the camping gear once a year and make the once every 3 month drive to your brother-in-law who lives 4 hours away.  Will it work in the targetted geographically contained markets?  we'll see soon enough, and I wish them luck.  (Though, personally, I'd be perfectly fine with a quick recharge/exchange system if the network could be grown to place stations conveniently, and if the vehicles had a emergency drive mode to cover short distances at low speeds when charge is running low, eg: a limp home feature)