Can Captain Sunshine Save The Israeli Electric Car Dream? : Parallels The electric car company Better Place failed to build the dream it had designed. Its bankruptcy left tech-watchers worried about the stain on the country, which is proud of its image as a startup hotbed. But there may be a savior in the wings.

Can Captain Sunshine Save The Israeli Electric Car Dream?

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A once-promising electric car company recently filed for bankruptcy. The company, Better Place, was building a network of battery swapping stations. Instead of spending time charging up, you do a fast swap and drive away.

It spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this network, but sold only about a thousand cars. Now, the owners of the Israeli company are pinning their hopes on an entrepreneur named Capt. Sunshine to be their savior. NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Getting a fresh car battery at a Better Place station is easy. Just shift into neutral, and take out the key.

DEBBIE ABRAMOWITZ: So it's going to pick us up; it's going to move us forward. The battery is going to drop out.

HARRIS: Debbie Abramowitz bought this electric car last summer. She loves it.

DEBBIE ABRAMOWITZ: The new battery is then going to be moved into position and put in. Then the sign will say go, and we'll start the car again. And we'll have a full battery.

HARRIS: This takes six minutes, 24 seconds. Debbie's husband, Chaim, timed it. When they plug the car in at home in Jerusalem, it takes hours to recharge. The swap stations let them roam freely.

CHAIM ABRAMOWITZ: We woke up one Thursday morning, took off an hour later - no planning.

HARRIS: They drove all day, visiting scenic spots around Israel.

CHAIM ABRAMOWITZ: Never did we have a problem or concern about electrical charge because there's switch stations all along the way.

HARRIS: Better Place supporters thought the battery swap system would fundamentally change the electric car business. Instead, the company burned cash building it, but made little in return. Since Better Place declared bankruptcy, potential buyer Yosef Abramowitz has been looking at the books.

YOSEF ABRAMOWITZ: I'll give you one example: The software that they have for the customer relations management, they bought a license for a million customers. A million customers - and they didn't get to a thousand. And they're paying for that license for a million customers. So we're finding out, basically with almost every contract, that there was not an attention to detail to watch their investors' money closely.

HARRIS: Abramowitz, not related to car owners Debbie and Haim, is a successful Israeli solar power entrepreneur. He's also known as Captain Sunshine.


YOSEF ABRAMOWITZ: Shalom, shalom! (Hebrew spoken)


HARRIS: At a recent rally of a couple hundred Better Place car owners, Abramowitz showed up in yellow yarmulke and a silky, yellow cape. He was Captain Sunshine, laying out his save-the-company vision for the crowd.

YOSEF ABRAMOWITZ: We're saying to the government, and to the army, 20 percent of your fleets should be electric cars. Do you agree?


YOSEF ABRAMOWITZ: We're saying to the finance ministry, zero usage tax and zero purchase tax. Do you agree?


YOSEF ABRAMOWITZ: And we're saying - of course - we would like to add renewable energy to power our cars. Do you agree?


YOSEF ABRAMOWITZ: (Hebrew spoken)

HARRIS: The idea is this: With the right government support, the car owners could form a co-op, join with a few investors and buy the company cheap. They'd run it prudently, build thousands more charging stations, stations that would be solar-powered. But the revolutionary idea, the battery swap stations, would be over. Or almost.

YOSEF ABRAMOWITZ: It's not that it's over, but it's going to be limited to the current car owners and the current car. We really see a lot of the electric vehicles in the future to be a second family car, for the local errands.

HARRIS: In other words, instead of taking a road trip, you'd have to stick closer to home - just like almost every electric car. Niv Elis is a business reporter with the Jerusalem Post.

NIV ELIS: It's not the same as the sort of visionary level of Better Place, which found a way around major problems that no one else had figured out how do to. I mean, it's not a new idea to say well, let's see how much can get from renewable sources and plug that into the grid. So I don't think that it's on the same order of magnitude.

HARRIS: The next life of Better Place is in the hands of a liquidator now. Car owners - and Captain Sunshine - hope to be running it by July.

Emily Harris, NPR News.

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