I imagine I am in a minority of Americans when I can say truthfully that I have never purchased a car.
Oh, I've been driving since I was 16 like everyone else -- hand-me-down cars from my older siblings and parents. All internal combustion engines, getting between 10 and 18 mpg.
About six months ago, I returned the last hand me down car back to my parents and signed up for Zipcar. Since using Zipcar I have not only driven much less, but I have driven only hybrid cars (I like the Honda Civic hybrid best).
But this diary isn't about Zipcar, or my moral superiority. It's about something much bigger, and much more compelling.
This diary is about a generation of Americans -- of which I include myself -- who is never going to have to buy a polluting, carbon-spewing, internal-combustion-engine-driven gasoline-powered car.
I believe that generation is alive today.
The (Cold, Hard) Facts
The U.S. consumes 20.6 million barrels of petroleum per day.
Of that 20 million, 9.2 million barrels per day go directly to gasoline consumption (that's 390 million gallons per day, for those counting).
Transportation in total consumes 70% of our total oil consumption.
I'll remind you that we are dependent on net petroleum imports for 58% of our petroleum energy use.
(All stats courtesy of EIA)
The Problem (That's Not Going Away)
Current cars suck. As Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has shown, less than 1% of the liquid energy you put into them actually go towards moving the driver.
Hybrid cars are cool, but the embodied energy they represent -- not to mention shipping them across oceans -- aren't exactly carbon-friendly.
It seems like, if we could get this country off liquid hydrocarbons for transportation, we could make a big huge dent in our dependence on foreign oil, doesn't it?
A Possible Solution
Meet Shai Agassi.
He's an Israeli software whiz-kid who grew up to be CEO of SAP, the enterprise-software solutions giant that reported €10.25 billion in revenue in 2007.
Now, he's changing the world.
Shai left SAP recently to start his own company, Better Place, which aims to do nothing short of start a global transportation revolution.
The plan is to effect his change through a combination of fully-electric cars, massive infrastructure build-out, smart engineering, smart incentives, and minimal government regulation.
The Better Place model has as its aim:- taking countries entirely off oil (by tackling dirty transportation)
- using existing, off-the-shelf technologies
- relying on market economics entirely with as little government intervention as possible
What Shai has built in a working system that has already been sold to Israel, Denmark and Australia answers the following questions:- what would happen if drivers paid for the miles they drive, not the fuel they used?
- what would happen if electric cars had removable batteries?
- what if you could plug in your electric car whenever you stopped?
Let's take each of these in turn.
The Amazing Removable Rechargeable Battery
Plug-in hybrids are a great step up from hybrids -- but as long as you're going plug-in, why not go entirely electric?
The battery technology we have today in Li-Ons (lithium ion) can provide 100-120 miles on a charge. Yes, they take a long time to recharge, about one minute to recharge per one minute of use, but they are not prone to blowing up or catching fire (you can make Li-Ons using iron phosphate instead of metal oxides, which is much safer).
So the first innovation Better Place is introducing is a replaceable battery in their cars.
You drive to work, you drive to the store, you drive home, you plug your car in, and it slowly recharges as long as it's sitting there.
If you go on a roadtrip of 2-300 miles, you get to the end of your charge at 120 miles and pull into a service station, where your battery pack is pulled, and replaced with a fresh battery -- and you go on your merry way. This process takes about 3 minutes.
The cars will be built by Renault-Nissan. They have 9 models already designed and ready for production. Their acceleration power is about 2x that of an ICE car. They are of differing power levels and sizes. You want a bigger, more powerful electric car? You can have it -- as long as you're willing to pay for it.
Pay Per Mile
This brings us to the second innovation BP is introducing. You buy the car -- you don't buy the battery. The battery is BP's asset.
A lot of complaint about hybrid vehicles electric cars has been the price -- and the price is built upon the mistaken idea that the car owner should also own the "powerplant" that drives the car -- in fact, the Chevy Volt is simply an electric car with an entire power station shoved in the trunk. If you want to own a powerplant, be my guest, but Better Place is showing us there's a better way.
They say, Let us own the battery. We'll maintain it, we'll recharge it for you, we'll swap it out for you whenever it runs out. We will also guarantee that you will only have to swap it out a maximum of 52 times a year -- the same number of times per year you would have visited the gas station on average. If you swap batteries more often than that, we'll pay you for your inconvenience.
Obviously it is in their best interest to keep those batteries topped off and in good condition, and also delivering the range they've promised.
And here's the final major innovation that powers the industry-disrupting BP model: sustainable transportation as a service.
That's right. You buy the car, you own the car, but you don't pay for the fuel. Ever.
What you do pay for is a mileage plan, like you pay for a minutes plan on your cell phone.
If you pay for an all-you-can drive plan, you pay more. If you pay for fewer miles, you pay less. If you make a longer commitment -- say a 2-year or 4-year contract -- you get your fuel prices (essentially electricity prices) locked in for that time period -- meaning you can predict, to a dime, how much you are going to pay for transportation for years down the road.
There's another benefit that comes from this setup. If you pair the purchase of a more fuel-efficient (i.e. smaller) car model with a long-term contract, Better Place will actually pay you monthly for the fuel savings you are creating -- a payment you can send right over to Renault-Nissan, which will mean that, in some markets, this will mean your car is actually free.
This is where the blinders came off for me. Let's see -- instead of having to worry about a big car payment, big maintenance costs, and big (and unpredictable) fuel costs, I could instead have:- a small (or zero) car payment
- a predictable monthly fee for miles
- the freedom to drive wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and keep going for as long as I wanted?
This. Is. Revolution.
The magic doesn't end there. We need to add more electrons to the grid if this plan is going to scale, right? Replace even a few million ICE cars with all-electric vehicles and you're going to overtax the grid.
Better Place vows to add as much power generation to the grid as the cars in its program will use -- sustainably.
In Israel, this was taking a circle of unused desert a citing a massive solar-thermal plant there. In Denmark, it was using the excess electrons from their awesome wind-generating facilities. You can imagine what the source might be in Australia. The U.S. has a myriad of possibilities -- solar thermal in the Southwest, wind in the Great Plains. Hell, even adding more coal in the East would be (almost) palatable, since coal or LNG-fired combined-cycle plants can produce energy more efficiently than the ICE (which just happens to be one of the least efficient engines ever built).
Better Place has already announced major strategic partners in the form of local utilities -- including AGL Energy in Australia and PG&E in the U.S.
It's in utilities' best interests to build out their green generating capacity. By feeding that green power into electric cars, you are essentially creating the largest mobile flex-battery in history.
The Challenges (a.k.a, "Getting Over Sticker Shock")
Okay, so to make this work, you're talking about a major infrastructure investment. You're talking about billions of dollars.
The price tag for all our imported oil is $700 billion. . . per year.
You don't think re purposing some or all of that money could make this project a reality?
To do Israel is reportedly about $200 million. That's the infrastructure.
For a nationwide electric plugging grid in the U.S., we're looking at closer to $600 billion. That's a single year's supply of oil.
Let's look at the plus side. What do we get for that $600 billion investment?
. . . long-term, local jobs that can't be outsourced.
. . . revitalization of major industry (autos, if we could get Detroit to wise up and start producing electric cars)
. . . creation of an entirely new industry (battery production)
How many jobs would we add between the three of these? 1.5 million? 2 million? Maybe?
You think President-elect Obama might be wise to look into this plan?
Trust California to lead the way.
Better Place has gained a toehold in the U.S. market in the San Francisco Bay Area. Shai recently met with top California lawmakers and agreed to a $1 billion project to build out the network of electric infrastructure in the SF Bay Area, including Oakland and San Jose.
The project is slated for planning in 2009 with final roll out expected by 2012.
Which brings me back to the beginning. I started this diary by telling you I'd never personally purchased an internal-combustion engine car.
I'm going to end it by telling you I plan to never have to.
You see, I'm moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in February of 2009. I plan to make maximal use of the area's excellent public transit system. At least until the Better Place project is rolled out.
Then you'll see me rolling in my Renault-Nissan -- no, scratch that, hopefully American-built -- 100% electric, 100% zero-emissions, rechargeable electric car.
And the era of the road trip will return.
More questions? I'll admit I'm not as good a salesman as Shai Agassi, so I'd recommend you watch the entire video in which he outlines this plan: Transforming Transportation Globally: