Is Israel Making the Electric Car Work?
The Renault Better Place, with its battery-swap system, could work economically.
January 27, 2012 - 12:00 am
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.
And where does the electricity come from? In Israel, it is produced from a combination of coal imported from outside the Middle East, and increasingly, natural gas. With Israel going online in the next few years with natural gas pumped from its own offshore wells, that brings an increased measure of energy independence and wealth.
For $250 a month — price-fixed for four years — you also get an anti-theft tracking service and nationwide breakdown coverage.
The cost difference today between fuel in Israel and the U.S. is 110%. Today Israelis are paying $7.25 per gallon. In the U.S., $200 would buy you 1,150 miles at 20MPG. In Israel you’d only get 550 miles for that money in the same car. With the Better Place subscription, you can drive more than 1000 miles. It only takes U.S. gas to hit $3.86, and at these prices for the user, the EV car breaks even. By comparison, in Israel today the EV car can drive an extra 450 miles per month for no extra cost, and this only gets better if gas prices rise. That’s a four-year bet I’m more than willing to take today.
Since I rarely travel more than 100 miles in a day, the logistics and economics work and the car is attractive, roomy, and drives well. So I’ve ordered one. This approach may revolutionize transport, at least outside North America. The system will next be available in Denmark, followed perhaps by Holland.
The car is not made in Israel, which is a pity but not a disaster. The intellectual jobs and the creation of the most valuable intellectual property remain in Israel. There are numerous advances under the skin that make this a truly viable alternative to gasoline, especially in a compact country like Israel and many European countries.
Here’s the irony: without massive subsidies by the American taxpayer and overpriced, substandard government-mandated technology, electric cars may be becoming practical. The free market still works best.