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August 26, 2013

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By Andrea

In the boilerplate of 2007, Shai Agassi, a software multimillionaire angry ecology entrepreneur, was absorption how to accomplish an electric car affordable to the boilerplate Joe. At that point, the all-electric vehicle—as against to electric-gasoline hybrids such as the Toyota Prius—was broadly derided as impractical. General Motor’s EV1 had appeared in 1996 and, admitting its cultlike following, the aggregation chock-full bearing it afterwards three years, adage the affairs was not commercially successful. The best avant-garde electric vehicle, the Tesla Roadster, was about to be released; it would biking some 200 afar on a absolutely answerable battery, but at $109,000, the glassy sports car would be attainable alone to the affluent; the aggregation says about 1,200 of the cartage are on the road. Added affordable cars, at the time mostly in the planning stages, would be able with batteries averaging aloof 40 to 100 afar per charge. The ability limitations had alike spawned a new expression—“range anxiety,” the abhorrence of actuality abandoned with a asleep array afar from one’s destination.

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Then, on a aloof cruise to Tesla’s arctic California plant, Agassi had an epiphany: “I scribbled bottomward on a allotment of paper, ‘batteries consumable. They’re like oil, not allotment of the car.’ That’s aback it dawned on me—let’s accomplish the batteries switchable.”

Two years later, in a awkward berth abaft the exhibition anteroom at the Frankfurt Auto Show, Agassi was adulatory the adjustment of that epiphany. The California aggregation he founded, Bigger Place, had aloof appear its bigger accord yet: an acceding with Renault, the French car manufacturer, to aftermath 100,000 all-electric vehicles, or EVs, for auction in Israel and Denmark starting in 2010. About the bend at the behemothic Renault exhibition, a garishly lit affectation showed a august adaptation of one of Agassi’s “switching” stations in action: a apprentice with a animate barb extracted and replaced a archetypal of a 600-pound array from a atrium in the basal of the agent in three minutes.

“We use the aforementioned technology that F-16 fighters use to amount their bombs,” said Agassi, an Israeli-American, who got the afflatus from a pilot in the Israel Defense Forces.

If Agassi’s dream already seemed premature, affair about all-around warming, government burden to aftermath zero-emissions vehicles, aerial oil prices and accelerated improvements in lithium-ion batteries accept amorphous to accomplish electric cartage attending added viable. By 2013, several models will accept hit the road, including the Smart Fortwo, fabricated by Daimler; the Nissan Leaf; the Mitsubishi i-MiEV; the Chevrolet Volt; and Tesla’s Archetypal S.

Governments are aggravating to advance the about-face abroad from deposit fuels. The Obama administering is accouterment $2.4 billion in research-and-development grants to electric car and array manufacturers to advance agent array technology. The Chinese accept apprenticed to put bisected a actor alternative-fuel cars on the alley by 2011.

“In 2007 you could almost see an electric car” at the Frankfurt Auto Show, says Agassi, an acute 42-year-old, calmly affected in a atramentous tieless suit. “If you absolved about talking about EVs, everybody affected you were smoker something.”

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Agassi’s business plan is altered amid electric-car account providers. Others will accomplish the vehicles. He will charter the batteries to car owners, and advertise admission to his switching and charging network. He expects to accomplish his money affairs miles, abundant as a cellphone-service provider sells minutes. Subscribers to Agassi’s plan would be advantaged to cull into a roadside switching base for a array change or to bung into a charging station, area dozens of added cars ability additionally be absorbed up, for an brief or banal charge. Agassi estimates his barter will pay no added for array ability than they would absorb on gasoline to biking the aforementioned distance. As business grows and costs fall, Agassi says, profits will soar. He says eventually he ability accord cars away, aloof as cellular-service providers action chargeless phones to barter with abiding contracts.

Agassi was built-in in a Tel Aviv suburb—his ancestor is an electrical architect and his mother a appearance designer—and he began programming computers at age 7. He has already had one badly acknowledged career. In his aboriginal 20s he founded a software company, TopTier, that helped corporations adapt data; at age 33, he awash it to the German software behemothic SAP for $400 million. He afterwards became SAP’s arch of technology. Flush with banknote and attractive for a new challenge, he angry to all-around warming. At a acquisition of adolescent leaders at the Apple Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2005, Agassi and added attendees were asked, “How do you accomplish the apple a bigger place?”

The challenge, he recalled to me, was “to do commodity added allusive than actualize a new adaptation of software. How do you run a country afterwards oil, on today’s state-of-the-shelf technology?”

It took him a year to accede the options for affective a vehicle—biofuels, hybrids, hydrogen—before clearing on electricity. In the abatement of 2006, in a allocution he gave at Tel Aviv’s Saban Centermost for Boilerplate East Action about active a nation afterwards oil, he mentioned his absorption in electric car technology. A anniversary later, Agassi says, he got a alarm from approaching Israeli President Shimon Peres, who bidding absorption in the concept. Peres alien Agassi to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and, at Davos in 2007, brought him calm with Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of Renault. The affiliation was formed “very quickly,” says Patrick Pélata, Renault’s arch operating officer. “We were already alive on electric cars, and we accomplished you allegation three things—a bargain way of charging a array at home or the office, a quick allegation adjustment and a quick bead for bodies who appetite their cars for a best range. Agassi was the alone one proposing that.” Agassi abdicate SAP and, in 2007, founded Bigger Abode in Palo Alto, California. He admiring $200 actor from investors, including the Israel Corporation, which owns oil refineries, and advance coffer Morgan Stanley. This accomplished January, Agassi appear addition $350 actor from backers led by the British coffer HSBC, adopting his advance absolute to $700 million.

Israel is a accustomed ablution point for electric cartage because of its baby size, seldom-crossed borders and acuteness to fossil-fuel dependency. The aggregation affairs to accessible its aboriginal switching base in Israel abreast Tel Aviv this year; the ambition is to aggrandize to 70 by the end of 2011. Agassi has installed bags of “charge spots” in garages and parking lots, area drivers can bung in their Renaults for the accustomed four- to eight-hour, 220-volt recharge. Renault says it hopes to advertise 100,000 electric cartage in Israel and Denmark over the abutting bristles years—each able with a adapted GPS arrangement that will absolute drivers to the abutting battery-swapping base or allegation point. The vehicle, which can biking about 100 afar on a charge, will reportedly amount $25,000 to $30,000; Bigger Abode hasn’t appear the amount of a battery-servicing contract.

Agassi additionally hopes to assignment with an Israeli account aggregation to acquirement electricity from solar generators, to abate his company’s carbon footprint. “The aggregation is attractive at the accomplished process, from the technology axial the car, to the infrastructure, to the allegation spots and the connectivity that accomplish all the pieces assignment together,” says Thilo Koslowski, an automotive analyst with Gartner Incorporated, a Stamford, Connecticut-based consulting close specializing in high-technology industries. “Agassi has the advance on everybody else.”

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Agassi is absorption his rollout on what he calls “transportation islands,” abundantly independent areas that are acceptant to electric cars. In Denmark, the bigger utility, Dong Energy, is advance $130 actor to advice accommodate allegation spots and switching stations for Bigger Abode vehicles, and will accommodate the accessories with wind-generated electricity. Also, the Danish government is briefly alms citizens a appear $40,000 tax breach to buy an electric car—plus chargeless parking in city Copenhagen.

In April, Bigger Abode began alive with Japan’s bigger auto aggregation to set up a battery-switching base in Tokyo and analysis four battery-powered cabs. Bigger Abode has affairs to accomplish in Canberra, Australia, and to run a pilot affairs in Oahu, Hawaii, by 2012.

Agassi is additionally aiming for the continental United States. He says he has appear with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom about architecture switching stations in the Bay Area. (In December, Newsom and added Bay Area association leaders appear a accord with Nissan—projected amount of the Nissan Leaf is $25,000, afterwards tax credits—to install home-charging units for consumers.) Agassi says he dreams of the day aback the big three U.S. automakers assurance on to his plan and Bigger Abode basement blankets the country. “With about $3 billion to $5 billion, we can put switching stations beyond the bristles above U.S. corridors—West Coast, Northeast, Southeast, Midwest and South,” he says, his articulation jumping an octave with enthusiasm. “We can’t fail,” he insists.

But others say he can. The accurate array he has adopted in affiliation with Renault may not be accustomed by added car manufacturers. That would acutely absolute the cardinal of cartage he could service, or it would force him to accrue altered batteries for altered car models, essentially adopting his costs. Moreover, lithium-ion array technology is convalescent so bound that Agassi’s switching stations, which amount about $1 actor apiece, may bound become as anachronistic as eight-track tapes. “If we accept a breakthrough, with 300 to 600 afar per charge, the accomplished affair could be derailed,” says analyst Koslowski.

Better Abode additionally faces difficulties breaking into markets. Afterwards ample tax incentives, chump rebates and government subsidies for electric car and array makers, weaning Americans off gasoline will be a challenge. “The U.S. imports added oil than any added country and [gas] prices are the everyman in the West,” Agassi says. Alike in Europe, area gasoline costs up to three times as abundant as it does in the United States, advance has been slower than expected. In Denmark, Agassi promised to accept 100,000 charging spots and several thousand cars on the alley by 2010, but so far he’s got aloof 55 spots and no cars. Bigger Abode agent Joe Paluska says the aggregation scaled aback “while it formed out bigger architecture and accomplishing processes advanced of all-encompassing bartering barrage in 2011.”

Terry Tamminen, an adviser on activity action to California Governor Arnold Schwarz­enegger and columnist of Lives Per Gallon: The True Amount of Our Oil Addiction, says Agassi’s acceptance in battery-powered cartage is excessive. The technology’s drawbacks, Tamminen says, accommodate the abeyant cesspool on the electrical filigree and the all-inclusive new basement needed—such as tens of bags of charging spots for the Bay Area alone—and the breadth limitations of alike the best batteries. Tamminen, who additionally served as the arch of the California Ecology Protection Agency, believes hydrogen-powered cars will comedy a role (he drives one himself). They use hydrogen ammunition acquired mainly from accustomed gas or added deposit fuels to accomplish electricity and ability the engine; but Tamminen credibility out that hydrogen ammunition can additionally be acquired from water, and dishwasher-size machines that abstract hydrogen from baptize will be accessible to consumers in 2013. Under the Hydrogen Highway Network, California has installed 30 hydrogen-fueling stations. “Yesterday I collection 150 afar to Palm Springs from Los Angeles in my hydrogen-powered electric car. I refueled in seven account and was accessible to acknowledgment that afternoon,” he told me.

But hydrogen ammunition faces obstacles, too. U.S. Activity Secretary Steven Chu aftermost year approved to annihilate federal allotment for analysis into hydrogen cars; he cited the aerial amount and ambiguous backbone of ammunition cells, the amount of architecture a refueling basement and the assurance of best hydrogen-generating processes on deposit fuels. (Congress, however, adequate some funding.)

Agassi told me hydrogen ability is an “idiotic idea” because the basement to abutment it would accept to be created from scratch; in contrast, electric batteries await on the absolute ability grid.

By 2020, Agassi predicts, bisected of all cars bought in the United States and Europe will be electric. Others say Agassi’s appraisal is overblown. Renault’s Pélata says a bigger assumption ability be 10 percent. Rod Lache, an analyst with Deutsche Coffer Equity Research, says Bigger Abode could be a banking success alike if it occupies a baby niche. “It could get 10 percent of the bazaar in Israel and still be badly profitable. Beyond that, it’s adamantine to say.”

I bent up with Agassi at Bigger Place’s new R & D facility, in an automated esplanade east of Tel Aviv. Agassi, dressed as accepted in black, was sitting in a windowless appointment with direct white walls. Carpenters formed and accomplished in the abutting room. “In Palo Alto I accept a cubicle,” he said. “I don’t biking with an entourage. It’s all carefully bald bones.” He had aureate from the United States for the final admission to what his aggregation calls the Alpha Project—the aperture of the aboriginal switching base and a aggregation center, abreast Tel Aviv. Some 8,000 bodies accept alone by the centermost this year to test-drive a Renault EV. Bottomward the hall, in a glass-walled appointment room, a account of Bigger Abode advisers were alive out logistics, such as whether to locate the switching stations underground or at artery level.

Next aperture a brace of software engineers showed me a computer affairs advised to adapt the electricity breeze into the company’s allegation spots. A contempo simulation by Israel’s capital account adumbrated that the nation ability accept to absorb about $1 billion on new ability plants if every car was electric by 2020. But Bigger Abode says “smart filigree management,” or breeding electricity alone aback it’s bare and sending it alone area it’s needed, could abate the cardinal of new plants. Aggregation artist Barak Hershkovitz approved the company’s role in authoritative the filigree smarter: bristles electric cars absorbed up at a allegation column in the aggregation barn acclimated 20 percent beneath ability than they would accept captivated afterwards smart-grid management. Likewise, he told me, to abstain abrupt the grid, a axial computer could accumulate clue of every car actuality answerable in Israel and adapt the abstract flow.

To Agassi, such problems are now a amount of fine-tuning. “If [the company’s] aboriginal two years were about application accuracy to break a puzzle,” Agassi told me, “the abutting two years are about application beef to install [the equipment] in the ground.” Soon, he says, gasoline-powered cars will be “a antique of the past,” and maybe ten electric-car companies, including Bigger Place, will boss the all-around market. “Together,” he says, “we will accept angled the absolute world.”

Joshua Hammer, a common contributor, is based in Berlin. Assignment by the Jerusalem-based columnist Ahikam Seri ahead appeared in Smithsonian in an commodity about the Asleep Sea Scrolls.

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