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Electric Vehicles on Cell Phone Contracts

By Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

Jason_Pic130Shai Agassi, CEO of Better Place, wants to make electric cars viable. His solution? Spread battery-swapping stations throughout the world, using a fee structure similar to cell-phone contracts.

According to Better Place’s site, “The batteries of a zero-emission vehicle need three things in place for optimum functionality: charging spots, battery switching stations, and software that automates the experience.” Their solution is a network of stations where depleted batteries can be swapped out for fresh ones. Similar to gas stations, you’d pull in, and “refuel” without having to leave your car. For shorter trips, small “charging spots” (in parking lots, curbs and garages) would top off the battery. Better Place claims the process is quicker than refilling a tank of liquid fuel. As mentioned, you’d buy a subscription similar to cell phone minutes.

Better-PlaceThere’re many variables in this scenario. A great deal depends on the “subscriptions.” Will they be similar to “Pay As You Go,” i.e. prepaid minutes? Or will, for example, you sign a monthly contract entailing unlimited battery swaps? And the cost is paramount. Emissions arguments won’t win over the general public. Most pure electric vehicles (those of normal size, anyway) cost more than their internal combustion engine (ICE) counterparts. Over time, the fuel savings offsets the initial investment. A monthly subscription could push this “break even” mark too far out. Assuming PEV’s cost the same as ICE’s, a hefty subscription fee would seem indistinguishable from monthly fuel costs. A combination of cheaper PEV’s and minimal subscription fees would do the trick.

Even with swapping stations, the “range” of PEVs is limited by the battery technology. My vehicle, a 1998 Chrysler Sebring, gets approximately 371.6 miles per tank. The Prius gets about 493 miles. Top PEVs, such as the Tesla Roadster, get a mere 244 miles per charge. And it’s worth noting that the Roadster is priced at nearly $100,000. This is a bad combination: high cost and comparatively limited range.  

The first 50 charging stations will be built in Israel by the end of 2010. Similar ventures will follow in Denmark and Hawaii. Perhaps by then, the technology will have caught up with Agassi’s ambitious plans. It’s a workable idea, provided we have cheaper electric cars and more advanced battery technology. This model, or a similar one, will eventually wean us off oil altogether.