Life & Culture

Gearing up for change

More people will be driving electric vehicles than petrol-fuelled ones by 2020, says Shai Agassi.


More people will be driving electric vehicles than petrol-fuelled ones by 2020, says Shai Agassi.

The high-profile Israeli entrepreneur is the founder of Better Place, the pioneering start-up that is making significant headway in promoting the mass adoption of electric cars through a network of charging stations and battery-swapping facilities.

Later this year, the company will be rolling out its infrastructure in Israel and Denmark with Australia and other countries to follow. There is also an electric taxi project underway in Japan, where taxi drivers can get their batteries changed in under a minute.

Mr Agassi, a former executive at leading software firm SAP, says: "In Israel, we predict that by 2015 there will be more electric cars sold into the market than gasoline-fuelled ones. The moment you can price an electric car close to that of a three-year-old gasoline one, we will start seeing a shift in the market. This could take three of five years in each country, and then you won't see any gasoline cars." Better Place is working with Renault and plans to have 100,000 of their electric cars on Israel's roads by the end of 2011.

Where is the UK on the agenda? "We had been in long discussion with the UK before the government changed. It has been very very tough to get things going, mostly due to budget cuts.

"Boris (Johnson) wanted to do this. He loves Better Place. We had a lot of meetings with him but the reality is that there is no budget for anything to be done."

Mr Agassi, 42, was next in line to take over from Henning Kagermann as the CEO of SAP before quitting to establish Better Place - but not, he admits, because he is, as he puts it, "a greenie".

"I'm a capitalist pig! It's my belief that we make decisions that are good for our pockets."

Mr Agassi, recently named in Foreign Policy magazine's Top 100 Global Thinkers list, founded the company in 2007 and has since raised $700 million investment, making it one of most well-funded private companies in the world. Investors and partners include VantagePoint Venture Partners, Israel Corp and the Ofer Group. Idan Ofer is chairman of the board.

Mr Agassi says the cost of implementing Better Place's full infrastructure in a country is less than the cost of a week's worth of petrol used by drivers. "Israel spends $25 million a day on petrol, which is around $175 million a week. We need less than that to roll-out the full network, operations and sales across the entire country. The UK would be about ten times that. Britain uses about $250 million a day - around $1 billion a week."

But the viability of his ambitious plans was questioned recently in a study by British consultancy Trend Tracker. Besides, what makes him so sure that the public will adopt his model when the uptake of electric vehicles has so far been limited?

He says his team has identified the failures of previous methods: the high cost of batteries - which are too bulky and have a short battery life of around 100 miles - and the inconvenience of recharging batteries.

"You have to separate between the battery and the car to solve the cost and convenience problem. You need to get the electric car under $20,000 - the typical cost that a gasoline-fuelled car would be sold at after three years." Better Place will provide removable batteries and install numerous charging stations. Drivers would need to stop for around three minutes to recharge.

He came up with the idea while president of the products and technology group at SAP.

"In 2005, at the World Economic Forum, I was asked: 'How can you make the world a better place by 2020?' I started to think about how you would run a country without it depending on oil for transport - 50 per cent of the world's oil usage is for transportation but most of us wouldn't give it up." His solution: to build a network of electric cars that makes the use of electric cars cheap and convenient.

After several meetings with the Israeli government, he decided to turn his vision into a reality. And many have been tracking his journey. TIME Magazine named him in their 2009 list of the world's 100 most influential people, while Fast Company placed him third on its 100 Most Creative People in Business list.

Mr Agassi, who was recently in the UK for the inaugural British Israeli Business awards dinner, is a graduate of Israel's technology institute Technion.

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