ALEX COHEN, host:
Some of that competition that Madeleine mentioned, especially in the area of electric cars, is coming from hundreds of miles away from Detroit in Silicon Valley. Madeleine spoke earlier to Shai Agassi. He's the CEO of a company based in Palo Alto, California. It's called Better Place.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
I wonder if you could describe your company and what it does.
Mr. SHAI AGASSI (CEO, Better Place): We are very much like an AT&T or Verizon is for a cell phone. We don't make the actual cars, but we install the infrastructure, the charge spots across the country wherever cars are parked that charge the cars, and we install what we call switch stations where electric car batteries can be switched when you're driving longer distances than what your battery allows you to.
We also own the batteries. And instead of you needing to pay upfront for an expensive battery, we allow you to consume electric miles like you consume miles by paying for the mile instead of paying for a battery.
BRAND: Now, I understand that you have contracts with Israel, Denmark, and perhaps the San Francisco Bay Area as well?
Mr. AGASSI: Oh, actually, we have an agreement in Israel. We've announced Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area with the three mayors in the Bay Area of San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland, as well as the local corporations - it's sort of a private-public partnership.
BRAND: And what about the Big Three automakers?
Mr. AGASSI: We would love to see one of the Detroit Three able to build a car that fits this model, and we believe that down the road we will see something like that.
BRAND: Well, GM has the Chevy Volt that's coming out soon.
Mr. AGASSI: Yeah, the Chevy Volt has taken an approach in which they assume the infrastructure is not going to be around. Their approach has been to basically build the extension mechanism into the car itself. It's as if you designed a new car, gasoline car, assuming that there is no gas station infrastructure around.
BRAND: Have you approached GM and suggested that they modify their car so that it could fit with your charging stations?
Mr. AGASSI: We indeed have, yes.
BRAND: And what did they say to you?
Mr. AGASSI: You need to ask them.
BRAND: Well, I guess I'm assuming they didn't go with your idea.
Mr. AGASSI: Not yet, but we're always hopeful.
BRAND: Were they at all receptive?
Mr. AGASSI: We would love to see the Volt being a very successful car because I think it pushes forward the entire agenda of electrification of the vehicle, so I don't want to come out judgmental as to their efforts. I think they've done an admirable job in putting a program together and sticking to it, delivering on it. I think that there's just that much bandwidth within some companies to be able to deal with multiple plans at the same time during this kind of a crisis in the automotive industry.
BRAND: Do you see yourself as - I don't know - as Thomas Friedman put it in a recent column, as, you know, the iPod of the automobile industry? In other words, you are where it's going, and GM and the others are not?
Mr. AGASSI: No. I think that the car industry is going through probably the biggest transition it had in a century. In a sense, we're going from car 1.0 to car 2.0. I think that car 2.0 is a very, very different machine. Its core components are power electronics. These are chips. They're made more by Intel than they are made by GM. And maybe we're not iPod, because we don't make the device, but we may be iTunes in that sense, which is a whole a new business model on how you deliver. In the case of Apple, how you deliver music. In our case, in how you deliver energy to the car.
BRAND: Shai Agassi, CEO of Better Place. Thank you very much.
Mr. AGASSI: Thank you very much.
COHEN: We have more about electric cars and the Detroit auto show at our blog. It's npr.org/daydreaming.