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Is Israel Making the Electric Car Work?

The Renault Better Place, with its battery-swap system, could work economically.

by
Brian London

Bio

January 27, 2012 - 12:00 am
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On a winter day of pounding rain, quite uncharacteristic for Israel, a convoy of 80 completely electric, battery-powered cars drove from Rosh Ha’ayin on Israel’s eastern border through Tel Aviv. On the outside, the autos are perfectly normal Renault sedans built in Turkey. Yet they don’t require a drop of gasoline pumped by countries that hate the Jewish state.

The cars run on an air-cooled 230 kilogram (500 pound) lithium ion battery, an electric motor, and a sophisticated electronic control system. Where Israeli ingenuity comes in: these “Better Place” cars differ from electric vehicles like the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf — a depleted battery can be swapped for a full one in about four minutes. The Renault ZE is also larger than the Nissan or the Chevy, sized more like a Honda Accord — a real, practical family car.

Personally, I reject the anthropogenic global warming theory. Nevertheless, I’m interested in driving an electric car for two reasons. First: Western dependence on largely Middle East-produced oil is insecure in strategic terms, and helps fuel the forces of jihad and radicalism. Second: if a truly free market can produce a more inexpensive, efficient alternative to petroleum-run transport that benefits the consumer, it makes sense to use it. The price of gasoline is steadily rising, and recall that it is far more expensive in Europe and Israel than in North America.

Last week, I test drove one of these electric cars, convinced that it would have all the driver appeal of a trip across Los Angeles during rush hour. It came as a complete revelation to me when the Renault Better Place accelerated like a rocket and kept going. I was so impressed that I followed up my brief drive at Better Place’s demonstration site in Tel Aviv with a much longer test drive on Israeli roads. I’ve driven the gasoline version of the Renault — it is underpowered and doesn’t handle well. This electric version is much quicker, as silent as a Mercedes, and super-smooth, especially since there are no gear changes. It feels like a 2.5 liter V6 engine in a car often sold with a 1.8 liter four-cylinder one.

The car is competitively priced, and this is only partly because the Israeli government taxes all new imported cars with an 89% tax followed by a 16% VAT. Cars in Israel are sometimes 50% higher in price than similar models in Europe, and are typically twice the price of U.S. cars. The Better Place car, because it is domestically produced, is taxed at 10 percent plus the VAT.

At around $32,000 — though it’s possible to haggle; it’s the Middle East after all — the Better Place is a good buy in Israeli terms.

That deal is even better than it sounds for several reasons. You don’t actually buy the very expensive battery, but only lease it along with all the electricity you’ll ever use. Any time that it becomes empty, you can swap it at no additional charge.

By June, all of Israel will be serviced by a network of battery swap stations. You drive in to what resembles a car wash, sit in your car for 4 minutes, and the automatic system swaps your battery for a full one. The robotic station than recharges the old battery overnight for another vehicle. The battery has at least a 100-mile range — a huge headache in the United States, but far less daunting in a small country like Israel. About the longest drive you’d ever take, the 220 miles from Tel Aviv to Eilat, can be accomplished with two quick battery swaps.

Or — and this also goes with the purchase price — you can recharge the battery yourself. Included in the purchase price, the company installs a charging point at your home with the electricity provided on a separate circuit and bought centrally by Better Place. There will also be top up charging points at public parking spots. If you sign up for higher millage, you can have an extra spot put in at your office, too.

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