Company Thinks Israel Is Keen To Try Electric Cars

In Israel, the widespread use of the electric car isn't just a pipe dream — the company Better Place is banking its future that the small Mediterranean country is the perfect place to roll out its fleet of electric vehicles. The big problem up until now has been battery life.

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The first mass market all-electric car, the Nissan Leaf, is now hitting the U.S. market. It gets a little over 70 miles before it needs a lengthy recharge - according to the EPA.

But a company based in California, called Better Place, claims it could make recharging as fast as filling up a gas tank today.

In a moment, we'll hear from the company's founder. First, we go to Israel, where the technology is being rolled out. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Tel Aviv.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: A Better Place doesn't have a sales center yet, It has a visitor's center. And that's an important distinction which shows how challenging the whole electric car thing really is. If you want people to buy an electric car, you first need to explain to them what it is and how it works.

ILA (Better Place): Hello and welcome to Better Place center. My name's Ila and I'll be your switcher for the next hour and a half.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She calls herself a switcher because she is trying to switch the way Israelis think. The concept is kind of Epcot Center like. You arrive at this big futuristic dome. There's a guide who talks to you about the wonders of the electric car. And then, there's the movie.

(Soundbite of movie)

Unidentified Man: Over the last 100 years virtually everything we do has been transformed by technological innovation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a slick production, and it's narrated by Better Place's founder - Shai Aggassi - who appears in two life-size holographic images on either side of the screen.

Mr. SHAI AGGASSI (Founder, Better Place): You see, we have to replace the model that we've worked with a sustainable change - at the heart of which is an electric one.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But this isn't just about the electric car. What Better Place is putting in place is the infrastructure that will make having an electric car viable.

The big problem up until now has been battery life. At most, you can go a hundred miles on a fully charged car battery. But if you're stuck on a long drive what do you do? It's not practical to simply stop and plug it in for the hours it takes to recharge.

The solution that Better Place came up with is this: battery swap stations. Basically, in the time it takes to refuel your car, you can drive up to one of these stations and get a new fully charged battery put in and then you're ready to hit the road again.

The car, which is being made by Renault, will be linked up to a GPS system that will direct you to the nearest station if you're running out of power. Also, there'll be a vast network of charging bays where you can top up while you are, say, shopping or going out to lunch.

Mr. SYDNEY GOODMAN (Better Place): My name is Sydney Goodman. I head up the Automotive Alliances Group for Better Place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Israel, he says, is the perfect place to launch.

Mr. GOODMAN: I mean, if you think about what oil represents to Israel, the dependence on oil, we can't do without it; but on the flipside, we know that most countries that produce oil are not necessarily the most Israeli friendly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So that's given Israel a huge incentive to adopt the technology. And it has. Already, dozens of companies have signed on to buy the cars for their employees. It's all set to kick off at the end of next year.

(Soundbite of doors closing)

OK.

At the end of the tour you get to get behind the wheel of an electric car prototype.

And here we go. Are you scared?

(Soundbite of laughter)

So it's pretty quiet.

We drive around. And unlike traditional cars, it's just kind of peaceful to move around in it. And it's fast. But there are critics.

Mr. DAVID NAMERI (Consultant, automotive industry): It's a dream. It's a nice dream, but I'm not so sure that this dream will be a reality in the near future.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: David Nameri is an automotive industry consultant. He says he doesn't believe this is going to work. What if you're stuck in traffic and your battery dies before you can get to one of those battery replacement stations, he asks.

Mr. NAMERI: He has a nice idea to change the battery on the way. It's not so simple. If we would have 500 stations to change batteries in Israel, then you go in, you go out in a few minutes and then you go on. But in the near future, I'm not so sure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back at a Better Place though, the visitors seem pretty convinced. Anat Simhy came here with her daughters from her home two hours away.

Ms. ANAT SIMHY: I'm impressed. If it's a reasonable price and really possible to fuel it in the home, very much relevant for me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So far a Better Place hasn't said, though, how much it'll all cost.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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