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AP Interview: electric car boss sees global change

AP Interview: electric car boss sees global change

Electric car pioneer Shai Agassi is a man with a riveting plan and a startling prediction: before 2020, he foresees, more people everywhere will be buying electric cars than those powered by gasoline.
"It doesn't mean that oil is not necessary, but we're starting the way out," said Agassi, a former top executive for information giant SAP AG who launched his Better Place venture several years ago.
Existing electric cars have a limited range, after which owners have to stop and wait for hours while the battery recharges. Owners of Agassi's cars would be able to remove the used battery and replace it with a fully charged one, allowing them to get back on the road almost immediately.
The first country slated to go live with a network of "battery-switching" stations run by Better Place is his native Israel, where he plans a launch _ with 56 stations and an expected 5,000 cars _ before the end of 2011. Sometime in the following year Denmark and Australia are expected to join, along with trials in Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay.
Brimming with infectious optimism, Agassi struck a chord with Israeli authorities who have cooperated, and for several years he has been a regular at the World Economic Forum, where he was interviewed by The Associated Press.
Agassi said he has raised about $700 billion and spent about a third of it mostly on setting up the stations. That leaves enough cash to absorb losses while he builds up to break-even, which Agassi asserts will not take long: "In Israel, in 2016, plus or minus a year, more electric cars will be sold than gasoline cars. When that happens in Country One, within two years you will see it in every country."
The numbers may not be as outlandish as first appears, at least for Israel: the country's electric company also expects electric cars to achieve a significant market share in the near future and is preparing its grid to meet massive demand, according to the Haaretz newspaper.
Whether his enterprise succeeds or not, Agassi seems to have seized a space created by a widespread sense that the world is not doing quite enough to deal with the eventual end of oil _ a prospect hastened by the explosive recent growth in the developing world.
"From 2000 to 2010 China added 120 million cars on the road (and) next year, 25 to 30 million," Agassi said. "It's no longer the US that sets the price (of oil). Now it's a question of how many cars were added in China, how many were added in Brazil, how many were added in India."
He admits the market for gas seems inelastic, meaning that despite rising costs at the pump, people grumble and drive on. But they save elsewhere, he says, harming the economy in cascading ways: "You drive to work and you say 'It's really expensive now _ I wont buy coffee on the way in.' If you have a job you don't have a choice."
Agassi plans to sell cars being developed by Renault SA and equipped with removable batteries _ which are currently quite heavy and have a range of 160 kilometers (100 miles). The drivers would be promised four swapping stations along any route the length of the range.
Although prices have not yet been set, Agassi said the idea would be that the consumer would not pay more to drive a given distance than the current cost.
Like any venture that could be hugely disruptive to a mammoth industry and is itself motivated by profit, Better Place has generated its share of critics.
Some charge that the company is trying to establish a new type of monopoly; environmental groups objected to the laying of new cables; and the ability of Israel's electricity grid to sustain the heightened demand has been questioned.
Some say battery-swapping is impractical and customers will prefer a fixed-battery car. Just outside the congress center Nissan Motor Co. was demonstrating its new Leaf, a fixed-battery electric car that you can charge at home.
Agassi is not worried: over time batteries will grow smaller and ranges longer, the idea goes, making the swap a trivial task and rendering the business model secure.
But he is most animated as he refutes criticism that the electricity needed to charge the battery has its own carbon footprint and the net result, versus the internal combustion engine, may not always be beneficial.
The electricity could come from coal but also from natural gas or wind or other sources, he said, adding that the Israeli government has approved a 600-megawatt solar project in the country's southern desert which will be able to power a half-million cars for a year _ assuming an average annual driving distance of about 25,000 kilometers (15,000 miles).
Is the main thing idealism or the scent of opportunity? Agassi's practiced message projects a combination of the two.
"The end of the oil era will not come because we ran out of oil _ it will come become we don't want to use oil any more to drive," he said. "I can guarantee you that we will finish the need for oil as an energy source for cars before we run out of oil in the ground."
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Online:
http://www.betterplace.com