Has Israel Just Figured Out How to Make the Electric Car Worthwhile?

Energy independence has been talked about so much for decades that many doubt it’ll happen in our lifetimes. But the world may soon see a dramatic change over the next few years -- and that change is coming from Israel.

During my recent 10-day trip there, thanks to the Once in a Lifetime project by 24 Hebrew University students, I went to a facility run by Better Place -- a company that seems to have worked all the kinks out of making electric cars free of gasoline a reality. The cars look like any other car, and drive smoothly and silently (you can see video of me test-driving one here). Once charged, either at your home or at a station, the car can drive 100 miles without needing another charge.

The new twist? Rather than wait for a recharge, you can go to a battery switching station that will install a new battery in less than two minutes. They charge up your old battery for another customer.

This recycling of the battery will significantly drop the price of the vehicle down to $20,000 or less, the company claims. Better Place is confident that they can make the electric car very affordable. Customers obviously won’t have to pay for gasoline, and maintenance will be cheaper. Plus, the vehicles employ a braking regeneration technology that will prolong the life of brakes.

The Israeli government has reduced the tax rate on electric cars down to ten percent -- from 79 percent -- to help get them on the road.

The system is ready. The staff answered every skeptical question posed to them by the audience, and they even had a pricing plan prepared. Customers will pay a monthly subscription to use the infrastructure based on how many miles they drive.

And this is coming very soon.

As you read this, Better Place is working to set up five to ten battery switching stations and thousands of charging stations around Israel for a test run this month. CEO Shai Agassi says that six months later, the cars will begin being sold, and they believe 100 switching stations will be set up and 1,000 electric cars will be added to the road per month. At least 92 Israeli companies have already agreed to convert some of their cars, and 17 local councils and municipalities have given the thumbs up to setting up charging stations. There are already 1,000 charging stations in Israel (and 100 in Copenhagen). Deals have been struck to build the switching stations in Australia, Canada, Japan, and Hawaii.

The significance of this cannot be overstated. According to War Footing, a book by Frank Gaffney and a team of national security experts, half of the cars in the U.S. are driven 20 miles per day or less. A “plug-in with a twenty-mile range battery would reduce gasoline consumption by, on average, 85 percent,” they write. But we’re not talking about a twenty-mile range. We’re talking about a range of about 100 miles with the ability to switch batteries if you need to drive longer.