But such rosy projections never came close to materializing. One of the unexpected things to go wrong was that the company didn’t get much help from Israel. Although Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president, was an enthusiastic Better Place supporter, Israel -- unlike the U.S. -- provides no subsidies to EVs.
Local authorities, whose permission was needed to build battery-switching stations, put up unexpected roadblocks, slowing progress, company officials said. And when employers provide the cars to their workers, which is a common practice in Israel, the workers pay a usage tax that reflects the full value of the car, including the battery, undermining Better Place’s effort to drive down costs.
Another shortcoming: Better Place assumed that other automakers would build vehicles that are compatible with its battery-swapping technology, but so far only Renault has done so. The only Better Place car available is the Fluence, a family sedan that’s too big for some drivers and too small for others. Marketing has been another challenge: The company is asking its customers not only to embrace a new technology, but an unfamiliar business model that is hard to explain. Then, just as positive word-of-mouth about the company began to spread last year, Agassi’s departure cast a pall over the enterprise.
“The model requires a leap of faith on the part of the customer, and many were unwilling to take that leap because of the slowness of Better Place’s development,” said John Gartner, an electric car expert with Pike Research. He said battery swapping might make sense for taxis or fleets, but not on a broad scale.
My test drive with Better Place was a mixed bag. On the round trip from Tel Aviv to the Negev, I had to switch batteries twice, going slightly out of my way both times. That’s far from ideal. On the plus side, the battery-switching station, which resembled an automated car wash, worked perfectly: I was in and out in about five minutes, without having to leave my car. And I loved the instant torque and the quiet of the Fluence EV.
Better Place customers seem to be satisfied, too. “We are all so overwhelmingly happy with the service and the car,” an owner known as Brian of London wrote in a blog post after a recent meeting of owners organized by the company; not surprisingly, the feedback was positive.
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